Tim Letts, left, alongside Bill Sumiel after the kidney transplant surgery.

Former Uber driver: Giving rider kidney ‘easiest decision’

Jarek RutzHeadlines, Culture

Tim Letts, left, alongside Bill Sumiel after the kidney transplant surgery.

Tim Letts, left, alongside Bill Sumiel after the kidney transplant surgery.

An Uber driver wanted to give one last ride on the day before he was due to trade in his car.

Tim Letts, an Army veteran who lived in Cape May, New Jersey, was matched with a request to take Bill Sumiel to his Salem, New Jersey, home from the Vascular Institute in Vineland, New Jersey.

Tim Letts

Tim Letts

“I kind of knew right away because there’s only so many reasons why people would be at the vascular place on a weekend,” Letts said. “He looked like a guy that was probably going through some kidney failure. I could just tell because he looked like he lacked energy.”

They started talking and Sumiel said he had been on the kidney transplant list for 3 ½ years with no luck.

Letts, a White man, then was a 31-year-old Army veteran.

Sumiel was a 71-year-old Black liberal with diabetes who had been having kidney trouble for 30 years, using ChristianaCare facilities for dialysis.

Impressed by how much Sumiel was involved with church and civic groups, Letts decided to donate one of his own kidneys to Sumiel.

“I swear, God must have put me in that car,” Sumiel said of that Oct. 30, 2020, day.

A little over one year since the surgery, he is now a patient at the University of Delaware’s Renal Rehab Program.

Letts calls the donation one of the easiest decisions of his life. 

“I didn’t want to look in the mirror later down the road and think, ‘Wow, man, you suck. You could have done something and you didn’t, because you talked yourself out of it or because you let other people talk you out of it,’” Letts said. “Good people need good people to stand by them, and don’t call yourself a good person if you’re not willing to stand by another good person.”

The day Letts met Sumiel, the driver planned to head over to see friends and hang out a bit. Catching a fare back would help him recoup his gas money and make a couple of bucks.

Then the Uber app directed him to the medical center, about a half-hour north of the southbound Letts.

Sumiel had not expected to be at the hospital. He had a blood clot removed on Oct. 29, only to have another one form that night, necessitating a return to the hospital.

The vascular center arranged for Uber rides both ways.

With Letts confident Sumiel’s condition was deteriorating, Letts started asking questions after picking up Sumiel.

“I decided I would poke and prod because I believe that my karmic being that I call God works in mysterious ways,” Letts said. 

He learned that despite health worries, Sumiel was deeply involved in the community, serving on city councils, church boards and outreach services in Salem. 

“I was inspired by how genuine this man was,” Letts said. “He was happy. He was kind and you could tell he was suffering, but he didn’t let that fact protrude.”

Letts has always had a passion for helping people. He joined the Army when he was 17 because he felt a passion for helping others and believed he was being called to a higher purpose.

Bill Sumiel

Bill Sumiel

That passion was illustrated first in his concern for animals.

“When I was little I saw a bird with a broken wing so I got a towel, took it home and nursed it so I could let him fly,” he said. 

When a baby squirrel followed him home, Letts knew it  was in danger by being out of its nest. He fed it with an eye dropper and released it back to the wild after it grew.

“I’ve had abandoned kittens on my property and with newborn kittens you have to wipe them every four hours so you can instigate them using the bathroom,” he said. “You have to feed them and you have to keep them at a certain temperature.”

That’s just the type of guy Tim is, Sumiel said, calling hime a loving giver.

Family and friends questioned Letts’ decision to donate, but he doesn’t feel like donating a kidney was that big of a deal because plenty of people survive with just one.

Letts  is not a smoker or a drinker, and it turned out that among things that made the match work is that his glomerular filtration rate – a measure of how well a kidney is functioning – was remarkably high, meaning his kidney was in terrific condition.

For years, Simuel took pills to help his kidneys, which were functioning at 25%. When that dropped below 10%, he was forced to go on dialysis. 

He primarily went to ChristianaCare locations since he lived just 10 minutes from the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

“My children had put on social media several months before I met Tim that I needed a kidney,” he said. Sumiel himself felt it difficult to write about his own need.

Echoing what many transplant patients say, the pair were surprised when Letts was the one in the most pain after the Dec. 7, 2020 operation. 

Today, they’re both feeling energetic and back to their healthy selves. 

Letts now lives in Stuttgart, Germany, where he works for Families, Morale Welfare & Recreation for the Army. Sumuel is semi-retired, working in sales remotely. 

“I hope my story encourages some of the people that are still on dialysis and are still waiting for a kidney to keep having hope,” Sumiel said. “It’s hard to keep positive when you’re going through all of that. I just want people to know there’s always hope.”

The two continue to keep in touch and call each other sporadically. Letts tries to visit Sumiel whenever he’s back in New Jersey. 

“I don’t think that politics or background really define whether two souls can be friends or not,” Letts said. “I saw somebody that I felt a connection to, somebody that I felt I could make a difference for.”

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