The story goes — or at least as the website for The Organ Trail puts it — a man walks into a bar and walks out with a kidney.
That’s the story of Plover’s Mark Scotch and his wife Lynn. Scotch and Lynn in early February 2020 were on their way to Texas, stopping at microbreweries along the way armed with hops from a fellow mountain biker. The fellow is a hops farmer and Scotch was trying to help him out a little, getting the word out about how good his hops were to potential brewery clients.
At one of the breweries the newly retired couple stopped at, in Natchitoches, Louisiana called Cane River Brewing, they met Hugh Smith. Smith was a retired horse jockey, and they found plenty to talk about.
On the way out, Scotch tried to get Smith to stay for another beer. Smith said he had to go home and get on dialysis. He had stage five renal failure and was on a waiting list for a kidney.
Scotch said — pretty casually, mind you — that he’d donate one of his own. His sister donated a kidney 12 years prior, but he never asked too many questions about it. Scotch really didn’t know what was involved in doing such a thing.
Smith didn’t expect to ever see or hear from Scotch again. “He said later that if he had a nickel for every person who told him they would donate a kidney, he’d be a rich man by now,” Lynn told City Pages from the couple’s Plover home.
But then he did.
The hidden kidney information
Smith did hear from Scotch, to his surprise. Scotch started finding out what it took, exactly, to donate a kidney. He contacted the nearest hospital to Smith with kidney donation capabilities, Shreveport. Hospital staff told Scotch he would have to come down to the Louisiana hospital for all the procedures, including blood tests and the like.
Couldn’t he do some of that work in Wisconsin? Scotch had asked. Nope. He started to prepare for a lot of traveling. He remained undeterred.
All that was wrong, by the way. Madison operates one of the top notch departments for kidney donation in the country. They could handle all of Scotch’s appointments.
And, he later found out, matches aren’t even that important. Thanks for a new voucher system, someone who wants to donate a kidney to a specific person can donate their kidney and the person needing the kidney gets a voucher for a kidney that matches.
But the Louisiana hospital didn’t know that at the time, and a lot of people don’t know much about that. Scotch is out to change that. And he’s doing that through one of his passions — cycling.
The Organ Trail
The Scotches like to ride, and sometimes those are multi-day affairs. Scotch started planning some rides that were along the way to Shreveport, since he thought he’d be going there a lot. But the more he learned about kidney donation: That 13 people die every day waiting for a kidney donation, and that so much information about kidney donation isn’t well known, he thought why not make one of the rides an awareness ride?
He sent an email asking just that to one of the websites that included information about how to donate a kidney. His email was forwarded on and he ended up being connected with the National Kidney Registry and the National Kidney Donation Organization. While waiting for a call back they ended up watching a TED Talk about kidney donation. When Scotched received the call back about the ride, it happened to be the speaker from the TED Talk.
It’s from him that he learned that he wouldn’t in fact have to go to Louisiana and learned about the voucher program. Lynn tells City Pages he was completely committed to doing it regardless, but it sure would be a lot easier doing everything in Madison.
Scotch ended up having his surgery in 2020 after biking from Plover to Madison, calling it the Organ Trail. His kidney went to someone in New York. And Smith got his kidney in February of 2021. It came from someone in California. All that functioned via the voucher program.
Lynn also donated a kidney herself. Through the voucher program that resulted in a boy in Minneapolis, Cooper, who was born without a well-functioning kidney and spent much of his short life to that point in a hospital room receiving a needed kidney.
But the Scotches wasn’t through raising awareness.
The first ride of The Organ Trail
Scotch launched the first ride in Spring of 2021, riding from Madison to Louisiana, a 1,500 mile ride. The rides are a way to do three things, Scotch says: Raise awareness about the voucher program, raise awareness about the urgent need for kidney donations as well, and to demonstrate that you can donate a kidney and live a normal life.
By biking the 1,500-mile distance over the course of about three weeks, it shows what’s possible, Scotch says. Scotch learned how to get attention to the cause with the rides. Partnered with a friend who understood the media world, he would make contact with media along the route, and allow people to ride with him on rides. He arrived armed with a writeup an outlet could use, knowing how understaffed newsrooms often are these days.
The rides continued, and so did the attention they would get, Scotch says. In the beginning they would have a few nurses and perhaps a doctor or two pop out to say hi when his ride would take him to a hospital. In more recent rides, Scotch tells City Pages, administrators and CEOs started greeting him.
But perhaps the biggest boost came last April, from a pretty popular television show.
The Today Show
In April, the Today Show was looking for a story for National Donate Life Month. A local affiliate had picked up the story back in February, Scotch says, and it made its way up the chain. The producer and a couple of camera people from the affiliate station joined Scotch on his latest bike ride and filmed for the segment. They would appear on The Today Show.
But, little did they know the Today Show producers had a little surprise for the Scotches — both Smith and the young boy and from Minneapolis who Lynn donated to and his family were in the New York Studio. “That Smith was there wasn’t a total surprise,” Scotch says. “But then Cooper came out, and the wheels came off.”
Lynn said she was so overcome with emotion she totally forgot to say happy birthday to her mother while on the air as she’d planned. Luckily, one of her sons was in the plaza audience with a sign, so mom’s birthday message got through regardless.
The work continues
What started as a simple but generous gesture to a stranger has become much like a full-time job, Scotch says. He maintains databases before every ride and all the media outreach and planning takes up a lot of his time. There is also work being done on a documentary about kidney donation and The Organ Trail. The point is to spread the word about this cause.
But he doesn’t mind the work, because he’s on a mission. “If more people understood how easy it is, more lives could be saved,” Scotch says. He and Lynn put in the effort because they don’t want to leave any stone unturned in raising awareness.
Scotch tells me toward the end of the interview that he never tells anyone to donate a kidney. That’s up to them. What he does tell people is that they ought to get tested to see if they can in fact donate.
That saves lives too. Through that process, which is pretty thorough, they might find something wrong with them they ought to get fixed.
One other aspect Scotch mentions: keeping oneself healthy in the first place. One way to help is to prevent the need for ever needing a kidney in the first place. Better health outcomes overall would lead to fewer people on the waitlist, meaning those who need it for an odd medical reason such as Cooper, there will be kidneys available.
What’s next? A ride this summer will include Wisconsin and Minneapolis in tribute to Cooper. And they’re branching out to adoption, something Scotch sees as similar to kidney replacement considering the recent Roe vs Wade decision.
Mark and Lynn Scotch have a pretty busy, and lifesaving, retirement ahead.
Corrections: A typo resulted in a non-sensical stat about kidney donations: 13 people who are in need of a kidney transplant die every day for lack of one. Also, Lynn’s kidney didn’t go directly to Cooper, but did so through the voucher program. City Pages regrets the errors.