Mikey’s Angels

By Diane White McNaughton • Photos By Danielle Debley

Melissa Oberdorf, 40, and Mike Rozman, 63, are an unlikely match.

Mike is a seasoned prosecutor, accustomed to eloquently defending the rule of law amidst the marble columns and soaring ceilings of Dauphin County’s courtrooms.   

Melissa is a light-hearted mother of a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old, who works full-time at Capital Blue Cross and part-time amidst the hunting equipment and life-sized forest animal displays at Bass Pro shops.

He is quiet, cerebral, and slow to smile. Short and stocky in stature, with wire-rimmed glasses that lend him that trademark meditative nature, he is a graduate of Bishop McDevitt High School and Notre Dame, where he was a D1 wrestler and is, and always will be, a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Fighting Irish.     

She is energetic and laughs easily, her blonde ponytail bobbing enthusiastically when she does. A diehard Penn State fan and Cedar Cliff High School grad, Melissa describes herself as “high-energy,” and always wanting to help.

But despite outward appearances, Mike and Melissa are a perfect match where it counted. In fact, they are virtually “identical.”

As a living donor, Melissa was not only able—but eager—to donate one of her two healthy kidneys to Mike, whose own kidneys were ravaged by Type I diabetes.  The father of two had been on dialysis for 13 months, tethered at night to a machine half the size of their kitchen table, but his health was declining rapidly, his wife, Kim, said.

His energy was running on “E” at the end of his workdays, and his color was sickly and wan.

Now, they joke, her Penn State kidney thrives in his Notre Dame body.    

Seated by each other in Mike’s modest kitchen in Steelton one balmy June afternoon, the Chief Deputy District Attorney has traded his traditional navy blue suit and conservative power tie for a white golf shirt and shorts, a glass of water close at hand, and his hands crossed characteristically across his chest.

Mike recounts how he and Kim met during a criminal trial in 1984, when she testified as a victim in a DUI crash on Cameron Street.  Kim, a former WHTM-TV 27 videographer and editor, broke her wrist in two places in the accident, but met her future husband in the aftermath.

In a fortunate twist of fate, Mike agreed to try the DUI case at the very last minute, but, even without extensive preparation, he successfully secured a conviction.     

The couple now considers Melissa family.  Melissa, wearing black capris and a gray “2016 Warrior Dash” T-shirt for this interview, talks without a hint of worry about the menu she hasn’t planned yet for her daughter’s high school graduation party.  Kim eagerly offers to help.

It’s clear she feels like she can’t do enough for the woman who gave her husband his life back.   

It’s Kim who is more overtly grateful for Melissa’s “gift of life.” Mike explains away his sometimes somber demeanor in this way: “You have to keep a stone face in court. If one of your main witnesses totally blows it, you can’t look like anything is wrong.”

But a bit of Melissa’s spirit has transformed Mike in subtle ways.  He may seem “unapproachable” to those who don’t know him, said one former co-worker, and he is never one to instigate a conversation, but when he talks, his words are “either really hilarious or really profound.”

“He is usually the smartest man in the room, but he is never boastful or the center of attention,” said a local police officer who also knows him well.

When then-District Attorney Ed Marsico assigned three young, attractive female attorneys to his prosecutorial team several years ago, Mike said Marsico expected them to “all drive each other crazy, but we got along better than anyone expected.” Mike chalks up some of that bond to their attorneys’ ages, which were close to that of his own two children.

Always together with Mike, the two brunettes and a blonde came to be known around the Courthouse as “Mikey’s Angels.”

But the bonds went far beyond a campy sitcom trio and their deep-throated boss.

“He is the nicest person,” with a great sense of humor, said one of the Angels, who said he is like a “second dad” to her.

“They worked hard. They weren’t afraid. I loved them,” Mike said of the Angels.

The Angels were among the community of supporters who helped Mike and Kim in the urgent search for a kidney.  They still don’t hesitate to nag him about drinking ample amounts of water, eating well, and avoiding germs –and he listens.

And during a furious snowstorm in February, Melissa became Angel Number 4.

The Search

Mike and Melissa’s circuitous path to each other began with another man in need of a kidney.

Melissa’s former high school English teacher at Cedar Cliff, George Labecki, was suffering from Stage 4 kidney disease, hovering around a dangerously sluggish 18 percent kidney function.    

Labecki, now retired, posted his need on Facebook.  Melissa immediately called the transplant center and said she wanted to donate to him.

It turned out that Lindsay Wenrich, an area state government investigator, did the same, and emerged as a better match for him.

Melissa admitted she was disappointed that Lindsey beat her out.  “I’m a competitive person,” she explained with a laugh.

Uncannily, Mike and Melissa both know Wenrich also.       

But Melissa’s “loss” was Mike’s gain.  Melissa was cleared and ready to donate a kidney but now needed the recipient part of the equation.

Rozman had started dialysis in January of 2017 and responded well at first, but then, after 13 months, “He was declining,” Kim recalled with a look of genuine worry.

They first realized how sick he was when they went to visit their son Stephen in Denver.  Mike became extremely bloated with fluid and felt very ill. The family thought his swollen legs and chest were lymphedema, but the bloating was the dangerous by-product of significantly failing kidneys.

Dialysis became a necessity.  Mike would work in the Courthouse throughout the day, and then hook himself up to a machine after dinner, for 10 long hours every night.  His struggling kidneys were sucking down three bags of fluid a night.

The family moved him to a first-floor bedroom off the kitchen.  Tethered to the monstrous machine, he could only reach certain cabinets in the kitchen, he remembered.

“The worse thing is, you’re stuck. I couldn’t go anywhere,” he said matter-of-factly.  He had always loved going to McDevitt football and basketball games, but, on dialysis, he was homebound.

When he would roll over in his sleep, the 18-foot-long line would often kink, setting off a host of beepers and alarms.  He would call upstairs to Kim on his cell phone for help.

Mike said he went through eight machines in a year.

When even that effort was not enough to adequately supplement his failing kidneys, he became one of the 7,300-plus Pennsylvanians on a waiting list for an organ transplant.

On the day Kim heard about a donor for Mike, they had just sent an email to Mike’s former campaign team, “Rozman for Judge,” saying he needed a kidney immediately.  Kim had asked Deputy District Attorney Chelsea Fry to send an email to Mike’s former campaign team.

On that very same day, Mike called her and announced, “I have an anonymous donor.”

Melissa noted that Facebook has emerged as the “2019 way of getting kidneys.” Current District Attorney Fran Chardo had also posted Mike’s need for a kidney on Facebook.  Melissa belongs to a living donor Facebook page, and has helped to recruit other living donors.

Melissa called the transplant team to say she wanted to donate to Mike, a virtual stranger, in what is known as an “altruistic donation.”

The matching process was extensive. The only automatic match is an identical twin, they explained.

”I don’t have an identical twin,” Rozman said.  Then he looked quizzically at Melissa – “Maybe I do.”

For Mike, matching on paper is only the first step.  The steeper hurdle is, “Will she agree to do it?” he said.

That to him is the true magic of living organ donation—to be willing to surrender a vital organ to instill renewed life in someone you have never met before.

“Not only is she a match, but she agreed to be cut open!” Mike marveled.

Mike had no idea of Melissa’s desire.    

“Nobody tells you anything,” Mike said, due to strict federal privacy laws.  “Unless someone tells you they got tested, you don’t know who is getting tested.”

His cousin, who is, coincidentally, a social worker at Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s kidney transplant unit, was considered a frontrunner in the search.  She went to rival UPMC Pinnacle Health for him, with Mike fully expecting her to be the “perfect match.”  She was, until the last day of testing, when Mike’s antibodies attacked hers.

In other evidence that it’s a small world, at the end of last summer, his friend, Deputy Sheriff Jim Titus, mentioned that his wife’s friend had gotten tested to be a donor for Mike.  Sheriff Titus’s wife Heather and Melissa both worked part-time together at Basspro.

Melissa’s decision to donate did not follow a tortured internal struggle.

“I always like to help people. I’m kind of a giver,” she said.  No one at her work was surprised when they learned she was donating a kidney to a stranger.

Her desire to donate an organ was long in the making.  Soon after she had her first daughter at age 18, she went to a bone marrow drive for another child in need, and always thought about being a bone marrow donor or a surrogate.

She said Facebook was “my breadcrumbs to the transplant center.”

The stars all aligned.  Mike was on the list to receive, and she was approved to donate.  And the match-making began in earnest.

“I came this far, and I’m ready to donate a kidney,” Melissa said.

Rozman got the fateful “call” November 14:  “We have an anonymous donor for you, and we’re going to schedule your surgery after the first of the year.”

After that bombshell revelation, Mike went up to see his friend Judge John Cherry to tell him the life-changing news.  Uncannily, Judge Cherry’s secretary is Heather Titus –Melissa’s co-worker at Basspro.

Rozman was intensely curious about his donor.  When he went to see his nephrologist, Dr. Jonathan Diamond, “I cross-examined him,” in a way only a top-notch prosecutor could, but the doctor refused to divulge her identity.  All he could say was, “She is not just a match. She is an outstanding match.”

Mike thought it must be his cousin because they had common DNA.

Melissa noted that that is one of the biggest misconceptions about donating.  Statistically, you would think you would match your own children, for example, but, in her case, they have different blood types.  Both Mike and Melissa have A-positive blood.

Melissa endured three layers of testing, including blood tests, a CT scan to check the anatomy of her kidney and its size, a chest x-ray, and a 24-hour urine test.

She also had to see a psychologist to ensure she was of sound mind.  She laughed as she recalled the many tests she had to endure, including counting down from 100 by 7s.

Melissa was assigned a social worker who acted as her advocate.

What if the organ recipient doesn’t take care of her kidney or rejected it, or if the person doesn’t want to meet her?  they asked. Could she cope?

And then there was the whole clash of cultures that defied match-making: Penn State’s Blue and White versus Notre Dame’s Blue and Gold.

Mike’s friends always joked, “You’re gonna get some Penn State fan giving you a kidney.” And indeed, that was the verdict.

The Surgery

The transplant surgery took place on Feb. 12, 2019–a Tuesday—as an icy blizzard swirled around UPMC Pinnacle in Harrisburg.   Mike announced to his surgical team that he wanted to get home to watch the Notre Dame—University of Virginia basketball game Saturday. (He did make it, within minutes.)

Mike felt a sense of doom.  Surely the snowstorm would lead to a cancelled surgery, or the donor changed her mind, or she got hit by a bus, he joked.

“Is the donor here?” he asked nervously.

“Everyone’s here. This is going to happen,” said Dr. Danielle Ladie.

The surgery unfolded without a flaw.  Dr. Ladie removed Melissa’s healthy kidney and then assisted Dr. Harold Yang in implanting it in Mike.

On the day of the operation, as aides wheeled Mike to the operating room, all of a sudden the donor was wheeled right past him.

Melissa said she went without any fear.  She never had any doubts or regrets.  Even her own mother had told her she was hoping Melissa would change her mind, but she never wavered.

Mike recalls seeing a big mask and long blonde hair in the stretcher that passed him.  It was then he knew the donor was a “she.”

After the surgery, Melissa’s kidney function numbers dropped, which is expected.  Her kidney will enlarge in one year and her numbers will climb, doctors have explained.  She spent three nights in the hospital. Because surgeons are essentially making a healthy person sick through the surgery, she was warned that she would feel like she was hit by a truck post-surgery.  She had never had abdominal surgery before, including during the birth of her two children, so it was eye-opening.

Dr. Yang said that Mike’s new kidney started working even before surgeons had sewn him up.

After the operation, Mike was forced to operate in a germ-free bubble.  He couldn’t go to work or attend Sunday Mass at St. Catherine Laboure Church for fear of infection.

For Melissa, she just remembers waking up hungry, since she had to do a colon cleanse the night before.

When Mike woke up in the ICU, Kim and many other family members were by his side.

Among Kim’s first words to him were, “I know her name.”

Melissa had friend-requested them in the hospital.

Kim and Mike were “over-exuberant” that day, she said.

They all started “talking” on Facebook.

Mike’s kidney function numbers, which haven’t been normal in 20 years, now are.

The Meeting

Connected at the kidneys but still total strangers, Mike and Melissa both had a post-surgery appointment at the transplant office at the same time.

The staff asked Rozman, “Do you want to meet her?”

Mike gave a heartfelt “Yes.”

The staff put Mike, Kim and Melissa in a room together, with social workers and coordinators present.

Mike said, “The main thing I remembered is, she showed me her scar.” Melissa’s was three inches across; Mike’s is far longer, at eight inches, and a straight cut down his abdomen.

Melissa wasn’t back to work yet. Since he was chomping at the bit to drive, he asked if she was allowed to drive, and then asked, “When can I drive?”

Knowing how hard illness is on caregivers, Melissa also asked how Mike’s wife was doing.

Melissa knows that the kidney must have made a big difference in his life, but she adds, “I didn’t know Mike before he was sick. I only know this Mike. “

But Kim knows.  “I see you smile more,” she said to him.  Despite his often serious, Bassett hound expression, “He is happy now.”

So is Kim.  She now gets full nights of uninterrupted sleep, without alarms ringing throughout the night. And the old Mike is back.

The gift of this tiny organ, no more than the size of a fist, has given the entire family a much better quality of life.

“My Penn State kidney is killing it in there,” Melissa joked.

Mike’s Notre Dame body grudgingly accepted the rival part because “I was desperate,” he deadpanned.

The Wedding

Months after that transplant surgery, Melissa was overjoyed to be the guest of honor at the wedding of Mike’s daughter Michelle to Ian Miller.  Melissa was seated at the head table with the family and was one of the many wedding guests to shed tears of joy and gratitude as Mike escorted his beaming daughter down the aisle in a picture-perfect Memorial Day weekend wedding in Elizabethtown.

The wedding day dawned under leaden skies, but as the hours unfolded, late afternoon sunshine emerged, along with a warm May breeze and so many smiles among the white lace and plush green carpet of grass.

When Mike walked his daughter down the aisle of the rustic, wood-lined wedding venue, guests remarked at how good his color was. His sallow appearance was gone.  He looked remarkably healthy.

Mike and his daughter danced to the folksy classic, “Sweetpea” by Amos Lee as their traditional father-daughter dance at the reception.

They had searched online for “Best father-daughter dance songs,” and he announced to laughs in his typical droll style to the crowd, “I didn’t pick this song.”

He wanted “Baby Girl” from Sugarland.

Kim admits that Michelle was worried that her father would not be by her side at the wedding.

Mike said with firmness, “There was never a question in my mind that I would make the wedding. I would walk her down the aisle.”

Melissa said she was so surprised at how many friends of Mike’s came up to her at the wedding and thanked her. To her, it was “not a big deal.”  And she was amazed at how large the Rozman family was, and how their connections seemed to reach into every corner of the community.

Kim especially appreciates the “bigness” of her deal.  If Mike wouldn’t have had a kidney, she couldn’t imagine his life right now.

Kim turned to Melissa and said.  “We don’t know how to thank you enough…I don’t have the words to thank you enough.”

At the wedding, the thoughts that invaded Melissa’s head, were, “This is the why,” she said.

Mike’s words to Michelle at the reception referred to the wedding feast of Cana.  Even Christ wanted wedding guests to have a good time; it’s what a wedding is for.

Many of the county judges, and all of the “Angels” and their husbands, were there to toast the happy couple, too.

Mike’s words to Michelle originated from a poignant TIME Magazine article he discovered 20 years earlier and that he had kept for this very occasion, decades later.

The Rozman’s next step?  “We’re going to Disney World!”

Kim remembers her joy at the wedding, “I was just so happy.” For Michelle and Ian, and for Mike.  That ever-present worry had evaporated like the morning’s clouds.

Mike’s mom, 85, was especially worried about how much work Melissa missed, as she had to go on short-term disability.  She just cries and cries with relief, Mike and Kim said.       

Mike is one of five children, but his brother was killed in a motorcycle accident.  He knew his mom could never bear to lose two sons.

He describes Melissa as “kindness.”  He sees evil every day in the courtroom:  child abuse, theft, homicide, child neglect, drug overdoses, and more every day in his line of work.

“When things are bad in the world, this reminds you there is kindness in the world,” Mike said.

“I think she’s a saint,” Mike said of Melissa.

“If anyone says prayers don’t work and miracles don’t happen, they should come talk to me.”