Oct 1, 2022
Reunions of all kinds can be a heartwarming, emotional type of experience for the people involved. Most of us, I think, can relate to experiences of class, or family reunions. However, this past spring in Houston, Texas a rare and remarkable type of a reunion took place at Houston Methodist Hospital. This type of reunion is called a reveal; where people who have received a donated kidney meet the stranger who donated a life-saving piece of themselves. What makes this even more incredible was that this reveal involved 10 people; five living kidney donors, and the five recipients of their gift. Together, they formed a donation chain of life.
Each of the donors in this chain had a family member or friend who was in need of a kidney transplant; however, they were incompatible with that person. Instead, they donated to a person they did not know, who also had an incompatible family member or friend willing to donate to a stranger.
Heather O’ Neil needed a kidney, her twin sister Staci was not a match for her. However, a 20 year old named Michael Wingard was, and he donated his kidney to Heather. Because of Michaels donation to her sister, Staci donated a kidney. Staci’s kidney went to a 47 year old man named Javier Ramirez Ochoa. Lisa Jolivet, who is 43 donated a kidney to Michaels friend Kaelyn Connelly so that her mom could receive a kidney. Her mom is 72 year old Barbara Moton, and 67 year old David McLellan donated his kidney to her so that his 31 year old son Chris could receive a kidney. 33 year old Tomas Martinez was the donor for Chris. He donated so that Javier Ramirez Ochoa would receive a kidney, the kidney donated by Heather O’ Neil’s twin sister Staci.
The surgeries were performed over 3 days at Houston Methodist Hospital by Dr. A. Osama Gaber, MD, Chair of Department of Surgery, and Director of Houston Methodist J.C. Walter Jr Transplant Center. Dr. Gaber said Houston Methodist performs about 700 transplants a year, including kidneys, livers, hearts, and lungs. But, he says “chain donations of this size are rare”.
Some donors prefer to remain anonymous. Donors and recipients are not told about each other in advance. Doctors want donors to feel they are able to back out of the surgery if they choose without explanation and without regret.
Dr. Gaber is a transplant surgeon with a deeper personal connection to organ transplantation. His daughter Nora was just 7 years old when she died in a car accident. Dr. Gaber and his wife donated Nora’s organs. He truly understands how difficult that decision can be for families. He says that experience is “imprinted on his soul”, and believes his daughters spirit is with him each time he performs a transplant. Dr Gaber and his wife Lillian founded Nora’s Life Gift Foundation to build Nora’s Home. It is a hospitality house for transplant patients and their families, offering them an affordable place to stay and find support in a home environment while awaiting and undergoing transplant surgery.
Two days after the 10 person donation chain surgeries, donors and recipients met face to face in a hospital conference room. Valerie Jackson, who is the living donor coordinator at Houston Methodist was there to welcome them as they met and said she “got goosebumps being in the room with all of them as she began to introduce the donors”.
What was it like to look at someone who received a part of you and who gets to continue living because of that gift? Lisa Jolvet said “Its surreal, I mean we’re all different ages, different walks of life”. When she looked at Kaelyn Connelly, who received her kidney, she said, “Like, she’s a baby, you know? I’ve lived half my life, and she, you know it’s just to be able to prolong her life is just amazing. I mean, the fact that we’re all going through this together is just unreal”. Staci O’Neil, who donated because she was an incompatible match for her twin sister heather said, “I would do it again if I could. If I was able to, I’d definitely do it again”.
Currently there are approximately 90,000 people on the Organ Procurement Transplantation Network waiting list that need a kidney. In 2020 approximately 5,000 people died waiting for a matching kidney that never became available.
Those who would like to learn more about kidney donation are encouraged to visit the National Kidney Donation Organization.
Click here to learn more about Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD).
Below is the NPR feature that this blog is based on.
Monica McCarthy has bachelors in Political Science and Criminal Justice from Central Washington University. A majority of her career was spent as a political consultant. She currently works at KidneyLuv as a staff writer.
This material is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the advice or counsel of a doctor or health care professional. KidneyLuv makes every effort to provide information that is accurate and timely, but makes no guarantee in this regard. You should consult with, and rely only on the advice of, your physician or health care professional.