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Donors and recipients in 10-person kidney donation chain meet in an emotional reveal

(CROSSTALK)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A rare kind of reunion takes place in a small room at Houston Methodist Hospital. It's called a reveal. Those who received a donated kidney meet the strangers who volunteered a piece of themselves to save them. You might remember Dr. Osama Gaber from last week's show, the eminent surgeon in light blue scrubs, dashing down a hallway as he holds in one hand a plastic ice bucket that holds a human kidney.

OSAMA GABER: They know me. If I'm carrying something, it has to be an organ.

SIMON: The kidney he holds has just been surgically plucked from the left side of a 20-year-old donor, Michael Wingard, to be sewn into the body of a 30-year-old woman named Heather O'Neil. They do not know each other, but because Michael is donating a kidney that will go to Heather, her twin sister, Staci, donates a kidney to a 47-year-old man named Javier Ramirez Ochoa while Lisa Jolivet, a 43-year-old mother of three, donates one that matches up with Michael's friend, Kaelyn Connelly, so that Lisa's 72-year-old mother, Barbara Moton, can receive a kidney from 67-year-old David McLellan so that his son Chris, who is 31, can receive a kidney from 33-year-old Tomas Martinez so that Javier Ramirez Ochoa can receive that kidney from Staci O'Neil, Heather's twin sister - a 10-person chain of life.

Hi, Dr. Gaber.

GABER: Simon, how are you?

SIMON: Fine, thank you.

GABER: Come on in.

SIMON: I just shook the hand that transplanted thousands of kidneys. Yeah.

Dr. Osama Gaber, who is also this year's president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, looked across his office at a portrait painted by a friend of a little girl with dark hair holding up a sunflower. It's his daughter, Nora.

GABER: She was 7 1/2 years old, and we lost her in a car accident, my wife and I. And she was an organ donor. And I recognized with everything I knew about transplantation, with everything I knew about the goodness that comes out of it, how hard of a decision that is for a donor family, it became sort of imprinted in my soul. I now know how to respect and appreciate these people that give organs for others. I can talk about it now without breaking down or crying.

SIMON: There's a part of me, having just heard about the story, that thinks that every time you complete an operation, she's with you.

GABER: I believe that, actually.

SIMON: Dr. Gaber and his wife, Lillian, have begun Nora's Home, a center on the grounds of Texas Medical Center where families can stay to await transplants.

GABER: Everybody who makes it to our clinic has been through so much. They've learned they had a organ failure. They've learned that that organ failure, whether it's the liver, a kidney, a heart, the lung, that sort of organ failure is about to kill them. It destroys the quality of their life almost completely - the expenses, the whipsaw between doctors and diagnoses and the loss of hope.

SIMON: Dr. Gaber says they perform about 700 transplants a year at Houston Methodist in total - kidneys, livers, hearts and lungs. But chain donations of the size we saw are rare and can be hard to report. Donors and recipients aren't told in advance about each other. Doctors want donors to feel they can back out without regret or explanation. And some donors choose to remain anonymous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

VALERIE JACKSON: Hello. We got - we have everyone here except for the pair that went ahead with surgery today.

SIMON: But two days after the surgeries in this 10-person swap began, Valerie Jackson, the living donor coordinator at Houston Methodist, welcomes strangers into a conference room who had helped give life to one another.

JACKSON: I'm just - I got goosebumps now, too, just being here with you all. I would like to just introduce the donors first.

SIMON: The donors and recipients knew each other's ages and genders. So as the strangers sat in this small room, you could see their eyes settle on who seemed likeliest.

JACKSON: And Lisa.

SIMON: Dr. Gaber told Lisa Jolivet that a kidney from David McLellan just been successfully transplanted to her mother, Barbara Moton.

GABER: She did great. I just finished operating...

LISA JOLIVET: Oh, yay.

(APPLAUSE)

GABER: The kidney looks beautiful. And everything went fantastic.

JOLIVET: Thank you.

SIMON: Chris McLellan learned that he now lives with a kidney from Tomas Martinez.

CHRIS MCLELLAN: Tomas, you have an awesome kidney. They already said that my numbers are down and...

SIMON: A compliment only he could offer.

MCLELLAN: Thank you so much. Thank you for my life back.

SIMON: Staci O'Neil, who gave her kidney to Tomas' father-in-law, Javier Ramirez Ochoa, told how her sister Heather had seen a young man in the hospital hallways and guessed he might be her donor.

HEATHER O'NEIL: Yeah, she told me yesterday, hey, I think I just saw my donor when I was walking around.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And it was, in fact, Michael Wingard with whom this chain of life. The twin sisters brought him a stuffed toy that matches one Heather has, a gift for the 20th birthday he spent in recovery from surgery giving up the gift of his kidney.

What's it like to look into the face of someone who received a part of you and gets to go on with life because of it?

JOLIVET: It's surreal. I mean, we're all different ages, different walks of life.

SIMON: Lisa Jolivet looked down the long table and saw Kaelyn Connelly, the 19-year-old friend of Michael Wingard, who received her kidney.

JOLIVET: Like, she's a baby, you know? I've lived half my life and she's, you know, it's - just to be able to prolong her life is just amazing. I mean, the fact that we're all just going through this together, it's unreal.

STACI O'NEIL: I would do it again if I could. If I had - if I was able to, I would definitely do it again.

SIMON: And Staci O'Neil, who chose to donate to a stranger because her kidney had incompatible antibodies with her twin sister, Heather, learned that her organ was now sewn inside the body of Javier Ramirez Ochoa, the father-in-law of Tomas Martinez who'd given his kidney to Chris McLellan. They remind us how acts of kindness can resound in surprising and astounding ways.

JOLIVET: Never in a million years you'd think that you'd be a part of something like this. It's just...

S O'NEIL: Even if it's not my sister, I can help her, but I can also help somebody else. So I feel like it's even better than just the original plan.

SIMON: There are about 90,000 people on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network waiting list needing a kidney. In 2020, about 5,000 people died waiting. The matching kidneys never became available, typically from people who donate after death. Live donations could greatly increase the number of organs available. To see it work with 10 people in this chain donation may remind you of an image from Michelangelo where a hand reaches out from the clouds to another hand with a spark of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOON AT THE DARK'S "EXPLOSIONS IN A FOUR CHAMBERED HEART")

SIMON: Our transplant stories were produced by Samantha Balaban and Gabriel Dunatov and edited by D. Parvaz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOON AT THE DARK'S "EXPLOSIONS IN A FOUR CHAMBERED HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.