On a beautiful March day in 2004, Chuck Stitt stood in the middle of the Little Patuxent River in Columbia, Maryland, a fishing rod in his hand and the cool water flowing around his boots. He cast his line, then waited for a trout to bite.
Instead, and without warning, Chuck’s world went black—he was completely blind.
Chuck was alone in a secluded area, plunged into darkness and struggling to keep his balance in the middle of a river. He couldn’t even call someone for help—he’d left his cell phone at home. Chuck dropped his rod and moved slowly through the water, stepping carefully until he felt the riverbank under his feet.
Now a rocky, 100-foot-high hill and a half mile of blacktop lay between him and his pickup truck. “I knew I had to make it back up that hill and to the trail, where there was a chance that joggers might find me,” recalls Chuck, now 52. “Luckily, I was familiar with the place.”
He proceeded slowly, with his arms extended to avoid walking into trees. Eventually reaching his truck, he climbed inside and sat in the driver’s seat, unable to drive or contact anyone. After a few hours, the darkness turned to light as his sight gradually returned. When he could see well enough to drive, he made a beeline to his doctor’s office.
It Gets Worse
Chuck’s doctor ran blood work. Two days later, the stunned physician called Chuck and ordered him to go to the ER immediately. The tests showed that his level of creatinine, a natural waste by-product produced by muscle activity, was sky-high—an indication that he was in full kidney failure.
“When I heard that, I thought it was a death sentence,” says Chuck.
He drove himself to the ER at Howard County General Hospital. After admitting Chuck to the intensive care unit, doctors inserted a catheter into his neck so he could receive dialysis treatment. Typically, dialysis lasts about four hours. But Chuck’s condition was so severe, his treatment spanned a day and a half.
When the hospital told Chuck and his wife, Julie, that Chuck could qualify for a kidney transplant, Julie asked to be tested as a potential match. But Chuck wouldn’t allow it. The youngest of their three children was in middle school, and he wanted Julie to focus on caring for them instead.
Without a new kidney immediately available, Chuck was put on a transplant list at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). He continued dialysis treatments three times a week while waiting for a donor.
New Kidney, New Problems
Three and a half years later, Chuck finally received a kidney transplant. (It can take up to seven years to receive a kidney.) While the surgery was successful, the aftermath was not—the transplanted kidney never performed beyond 50 percent capacity. It began to fail a year later, and Chuck landed in the hospital when the antirejection drugs he was given built up in his system until they reached dangerous levels. He was placed on dialysis again. Once more, Julie offered to undergo testing to determine whether she was a possible donor. Again, Chuck rejected the idea.
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In 2011, a deceased-donor kidney was determined to be a match for Chuck. Deceased-donor kidneys come from a donor who very recently died. A live-donor kidney—one from a living, healthy person—is preferable because it poses less of a risk of rejection, and it normally lasts longer. But Chuck was in no position to wait for one. The transplant surgery at UMMC was successful, but Chuck’s body was soon riddled with infections. Other complications followed, including a hernia: One morning, he woke up to find his internal organs protruding through his surgical scar.
As time passed, the second transplant began to fail, forcing Chuck to reverse himself and ask his wife, “Could you please help me?”
Julie was tested and learned her blood type was not a match. But another option soon presented itself. In April 2012, she discovered UMMC’s Paired Kidney Exchange (PKE) program and signed up. The PKE works with organizations such as the National Kidney Registry to match donors with recipients. If a live donor wants to give a kidney to a friend or relative but is incompatible with the recipient, the program ensures that the donor gets listed as a potential donor to another recipient. In exchange, the donor’s friend or relative is guaranteed a kidney from a matching donor on the list.
Julie registered with the program to donate one kidney to an anonymous person in need, thus securing a compatible kidney for Chuck. But because she was starting a new job as a second-grade teacher in the fall, she requested that her surgery take place the following summer, in 2013, so that it wouldn’t interfere with her first year at school.
In December 2012, just before Chuck was scheduled to begin dialysis again, he received a phone call. PKE had found a match.
This time, Chuck received a new live-donor kidney, and there were no infections or rejections following the surgery, just a kidney functioning the way it was supposed to.
While Chuck was undergoing the tortuous process leading up to his successful transplant, his father-in-law was having health problems of his own.
Julie’s father, Richard Kern, had been diagnosed with diabetes almost 50 years earlier, at the age of 25. During a nearly fatal heart bypass surgery in 2010, Richard’s kidneys had failed. He began dialysis, and his kidneys rebounded. But in June 2012, his kidneys failed again. Due to an acute shortage of live donors, he was placed on the transplant list to wait for a deceased donor. In August, he again began dialysis treatments.
“I had my suspicions that eventually Dad would need a kidney transplant,” says Julie. But by committing to donating a kidney to the PKE program to help her husband receive a kidney, she couldn’t help her father. She and Richard pleaded with PKE to allow her donated kidney to be given to Richard. Her request was denied.
“I was really emphatic about that, mainly because it’s not fair to jump the system,” explains David Leeser, MD, who runs the PKE program. “Mrs. Stitt’s kidney was donated on behalf of her husband, and it needed to go to whoever was the next recipient on the list in the exchange program.”
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In June 2013, Richard received word from Laurie Thompson, coordinator of PKE, that a kidney was available, but it proved not viable after all.
A month later, Richard got another call from Thompson: A live, matching donor was available with a viable kidney. Richard was scheduled for surgery on July 16, 2013. The donor, of course, would remain anonymous.
“Recipients and donors must remain anonymous throughout the surgery,” says Thompson. “If, after the surgery, they choose to contact one another, that’s done through the coordinators. They give us notes, and we pass them on.”
Julie had also received a call to schedule her surgery on the very same day—at a different time and on a different floor, however, from her dad’s.
On the morning of the surgery, Richard, surrounded by his wife, Donna, and Chuck, underwent a presurgical checkup. Considering the severity of any operation, not to mention the family’s track record when it came to successful kidney transplants, it was understandable that the trio were anxious. But then they got news that brought a smile to their faces.
They overheard a hospital worker say that he was going to the donor’s room. He then gave the room number.
It was Julie’s.
What Were the Odds?
Richard’s surgery was a success, and his new kidney is working well. No one is happier about that than Julie. How often is it that a daughter can give life to her father?
“I didn’t want to say anything,” she says, admitting that she had a gut feeling her father would receive her kidney. “I didn’t want to jinx it. It was miraculous that I was able to help both my husband and my father. It was a blessing.”
What are the odds of one donor saving two lives? Says PKE’s Thompson, they must be phenomenal: “We all said this family had a guardian angel sitting on their shoulders directing this whole affair.”