Image: Rita Van Loenen and Thomas Chappell
Ross D. Franklin  /  AP
Rita Van Loenen, of Gilbert, Ariz., left, sits with Thomas Chappell, of Phoenix, at her kidney dialysis treatment appointment, in Tempe, Ariz. Chappell, a local taxi driver who had been driving Van Loenen to her dialysis appointments, shocked her a month ago by offering to donate his kidney to her.
updated 8/25/2009 8:13:40 PM ET 2009-08-26T00:13:40

Rita Van Loenen had no idea that a trip in Thomas Chappell's taxi cab could end up being the ride that saves her life.

"There are better odds of getting struck by lightning," Van Loenen said. "A random taxi driver offering to give me his kidney and all these pieces match. There has to be something behind this. How can this be?"

Chappell, who has been driving Van Loenen to dialysis appointments, shocked the Gilbert, Ariz., woman a month ago by offering to donate his kidney. But even more shocking to her was that doctors found they had the same blood type, that they were compatible.

"He calls me all excited. If we were a closer match, we would've been siblings. I was ready to fall off the floor," Van Loenen said.

The Phoenix taxi driver said he was a man of faith and that a higher power wanted him to step in.

"By then, me and the good Lord already had a talk. He said 'Tom, you go give her one. It will work," Chappell said.

Diagnosed with kidney disease
Last year, Van Loenen, an instructor in special-education methods, began feeling ill and experiencing water retention in her legs. She went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with kidney disease. With kidney failure setting in, friends and family were tested but there was no match.

In February, she received her cousin's kidney but that transplant failed. One day, Van Loenen, 63, found herself telling Chappell, 56, about how her son was now going to get tested. Chappell decided to add his name to the list.

"I said 'Rita, your son's a whole lot younger than me. He's got a lot more years. I'm gonna go down and go through the process and see if it will work.' I don't think she really believed I was going to."

The gesture evoked tears of gratitude from Loenen but she was still skeptical.

"A little bit in my heart I didn't believe it. He said 'give me the number' and I have transplant number at Mayo (Clinic in Scottsdale) memorized."

The two first met more than three months ago. It wasn't an auspicious beginning.

Chappell was half an hour late picking Van Loenen up for a dialysis appointment.

"When I got there she was not happy," Chappell said. "And I can understand it now. She's sick and all these things she goes through ... The next day, it just so happens I got her again."

‘A whole new kind of lift’
Since then he has — and he insists it is by happenstance — been her taxi driver three to four times a month. For the last month, Chappell has started undergoing the arduous process of donor screening, undergoing numerous tests and exams. But none of it has brought second thoughts.

"This has put a whole new kind of lift in my boots. I never knew what it felt like to give somebody life and that's what I'm doing," Chappell said.

Van Loenen said Chappell never asked for any compensation. She still can't quite believe his level of commitment.

"I've never known anybody so enthusiastic to get a body part removed," Van Loenen said.

After the transplant, which hasn't been scheduled yet, Chappell will need to tread carefully. He will have to rest between four and six weeks but his work has promised to cover his lost wages.

"I've had drivers do some pretty incredibly amazing things for no charge. But this is just over the top," said Jim Hickey, national sales and marketing director for the company that owns VIP Taxi. "We're just so proud of him."

Van Loenen said that, thanks to Chappell, she can actually make plans for the future.

"Whenever I tell my friends or my family, they just find it so incredible," Van Loenen said. "They do call him an angel. My friend says there's angels everywhere. That's the right way to capture it."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Cabbie donates kidney to rider

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