A thriller writer made good on his promise to make the woman who donated her kidney to his former high school teacher a major character in his new book that is now a bestseller.
In November 2013, author Brad Meltzer sent out a plea on Facebook to find a kidney donor for his beloved former teacher, Ellen Sherman. Meltzer had included the history teacher at North Miami Beach High School in the dedication of his book, History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, in appreciation for all she did to encourage him to write and find his love of history.
“‘When I was in 11th grade, Mrs. Sherman changed my life by giving me my love of history,” Meltzer, 48, tells PEOPLE, recalling the days Sherman played documentaries about John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald in her classroom.
“It was like the foundations of my brain were kicked open and my love of history began,” Meltzer continues. “I became a history major; I got two TV shows on the History Channel; I write about history in my thrillers. Everything I do comes from that 11th-grade class.”
The two reconnected after the book’s release in 2013 after Sherman got word of the dedication, and that’s when Meltzer found out that Sherman was in need of a life-saving kidney transplant but was having trouble finding a donor.
Meltzer felt compelled to use his platform to help.
“This is a woman who affected the entire trajectory of my professional existence, as well as my personal one. The very least I could do is try to find a match for her,” Meltzer recalls. “Truthfully, I had no idea if it would work. We asked people to buy books, but I’ve never asked someone for a body part before.”
After posting his call to find a donor to social media, many people volunteered to be tested to see if they were a match for Sherman. Though none were a match, Meltzer didn’t give up, and he posted a second request that upped the ante a bit: if someone found they were a match and were up for donating, he would make them a character in a book.
A short time later, a woman from Virginia, Amy Waggoner, reached out to Meltzer saying she was trying to email Sherman but hadn’t heard back. Meltzer then made the connection between the two women, and as fate would have it, Waggoner was a match. Turns out, the email she had initially sent had ended up in Sherman’s spam folder.
After the transplant, Meltzer says Sherman immediately felt a radical difference.
“It was like her kidney was a dirty pipe that was not functioning. The moment she had a brand new kidney it was like the filter was clean again,” he says. “She’s like, ‘I felt better.’ She literally came out of surgery and her color was better than when she went in.”
Seeing his former teacher start her recovery after their long search was a touching moment for the writer.
“Every good book just lets you look through someone else’s eyes,” Meltzer says, “and that moment, I got to look through my teacher’s eyes.”
This March, Meltzer released his new book, The Escape Artist, with a major character named after Waggoner—fufilling his promise to the woman who saved his teacher’s life.
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“I got to build this really wonderful, sarcastic, but funny and really truthfully, I would just say, an inspiring character who comes in and gets to save the day at the exact right moment,” he says of the character in The Escape Artist. “I felt like I couldn’t just make her some character in a coffee shop, she deserved better than that.”
The book—which follows the mystery around a military servicewoman who was reported dead but is discovered to be alive and on the run—has enjoyed much success in the weeks since its release, and Meltzer has an idea why.
“This is my 20 year anniversary of writing thrillers,” he says. “We’ve never had a response to a book like this. I’m totally convinced that Amy and Mrs. Sherman are my lucky charms!”