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A Kidney for Jimmy: The Journey

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BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - Five and a half hours. Every night.

Jimmy Apostolopoulos depends on dialysis to survive, as he battles end-stage renal disease, the last stage of chronic kidney disease (CKD).

A machine sits by his side of the bed in his Bethlehem house. A shelf stocked with medical supplies is a few feet away.

If Jimmy's name sounds familiar, it's because he worked at Jimmy's Hot Dogs (named after his great uncle) for 25 years in Palmer Township. (His family sold the business in 2016.) While his name might be well-known, his health issues weren’t -- but that’s all changed now.

"If I can use my name and my former business to help myself and others, I'm going to use myself," he said.

While dialysis supports his kidney function for now, Jimmy said the goal is to find a donor -- ideally a living one -- for a transplant.

"I just want a kidney," Jimmy's wife Heather said. "I'm easy to please. Just find me a kidney."

The two met in 1986 as students at Kutztown University. They lived in Old Main, a co-ed residence hall. Jimmy lived on the floor under Heather, but he recalls exactly what she was wearing on the day he first saw her.

"A GUESS jean mini-skirt, a sweater half off the shoulder, big open neck, and I didn’t know my hallmate was dating her," he said.

"People used to call him 'Snuffy Snuffleupagus,'" Heather said. "The Sesame Street guy.”

When Heather needed help with math, Jimmy ended up being her tutor. Their relationship blossomed from friendship into something more.

"I wanted to spend every minute with her from the get," Jimmy said. "Something about her -- it was just something attracted me to her that I can't explain."

"Something clicked, and it was always like, ‘Go find Jimmy. Go find Snuffy. I need this, or I need that,'" she said. "One thing led to the next, and before we knew it, we were in love."

Jimmy and Heather celebrated 25 years of marriage this month -- but it almost didn't happen.

Jimmy has Type 1 diabetes, which triggered complications in his eyes, legs and feet. On May 1, Jimmy's health took a turn for the worst, as he headed to work that day.

"Everything felt like blinding, like 'you're being interrogated'-kind of lighting right in your eyes," he said. "I couldn't see, and I'm out of breath. I couldn't walk down the hallway.”

Jimmy said he knew his kidneys failed. Heather rushed him to the hospital.

"I'll never forget the doctor looking at me," she recalled. "He said, 'It's the best decision you've ever made, because tomorrow morning, you would've woken up next to a corpse.'"

It was a sobering wake-up call that broke Jimmy down, as he recovered in intensive care.

"You turn away and just cry to yourself, like, ‘How did i let myself get here? How did this happen at 51?’”

Since that day, Jimmy said he's holding nothing back. After years of hiding his health issues, he's turned into a public advocate for kidney disease awareness and the need for donors.

"It's time for me to turn this not just finding a kidney for Jimmy, but finding a kidney for others, finding organ donors for others," he said. "Whether it be heart, lung, liver, whatever."

Heather has been helping share that message any way she can -- through business cards, social media and soon, billboards around the Lehigh Valley.

"This man, I believe, is my soulmate. I truly believe that," she said. "I will walk the ends of the earth for him. Until I can't breathe anymore, I'll be searching."

Jimmy is still working to get on the national Kidney Transplant Waitlist. He said there’s a long process of testing to go through -- and even after that, the wait for a kidney could take three to five more years.

"I swear I hope I get one, but even if I don’t, I swear I'm not stopping."

"I have faith," Heather said. "I'm trying to have faith. I lost my faith, I thought, for a while."

Jimmy wants to create a nonprofit that raises awareness about organ donations. He said he didn't know where to turn when he found out about his kidney disease, and he wants to be there for others going through similar challenges.

"And just keep paying it forward any way I can, and that’s what I'm trying to do in this whole situation," he said. "It's not just about me."

Jimmy and Heather are looking for a lawyer to help them start the nonprofit. They're organizing a flapjack fundraiser on Saturday, August 17 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Applebee's on 3730 Nazareth Pike in Bethlehem to help pay for that.

"I love a good fight, and that’s what this is," Jimmy said. "It's a fight, and I'm fighting for my life, and I'm fighting to get better, and I'm fighting for people who don't have a voice, too."

To get tested as a possible match for Jimmy, contact the Lehigh Valley Health Network at 855-674-8767 and select Option #5.

In this two-part report, the next piece explores how Type 1 diabetes played a role in Jimmy's health and what Jimmy has learned about self-care as he strives to motivate and support others.