Jason Gentry needed a kidney. Lisa Clouse wanted to give him hers. When the two weren’t a match, a paired kidney exchange across 6 states ensured Gentry – and 5 others – got the organs they needed.
Jason Gentry needed a kidney – again.
The second-grade teacher had undergone a kidney transplant in 2013 to treat a rare condition called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS, which affects the kidneys’ ability to filter blood properly.
For a few years since his operation, he’d been doing well – able to fish, ride bikes and play soccer with his 13-year-old son, as he loved to do. But then he started getting tired too quickly to participate in many of those hobbies. As his kidney’s function unexpectedly worsened, it became tougher to put on a cheerful face for his family and students.
“These last couple years have been rough as far as stamina goes,” Gentry said.
Gentry was put on the waitlist for another kidney. Yet he wasn’t getting good news.
Four years of fatigue later, his brother had a solution. His brother’s church had put a form on their website that they called a needs list. People could list what they needed – money for gas, a bed, a bicycle for their children. If a member of the church could meet that need, the giver and the receiver could be connected.
“He told me I should list that I needed a kidney,” Gentry said. “I was having a hard time doing it. I don’t like putting myself out there like that.”
SEE ALSO: How Living Kidney Donation Works
But once he did, Gentry started getting calls and text messages from people who wanted to hear more. One was Lisa Clouse, a registered vascular technologist who’d been interested in donating a kidney ever since she saw how much the act could help her patients on dialysis.
“For a year and a half, every day the thought tugged at my heart,” Clouse said. “So last December, when our church posted the needs list, and I saw at the bottom that someone on there needed a kidney, I felt like God was throwing this at me. This is what I was supposed to do.”
Unfortunately, Clouse wasn’t a match for Gentry (organ donors and their recipients need to have compatible blood types and tissues.) Yet, there was another option: a paired kidney exchange through the University of Michigan Health Transplant Center.
Paired kidney exchanges take place when a donor isn’t able to give a kidney to the person they intended but is willing to provide the organ to another recipient as long as a compatible kidney is found for the person to whom the donor originally wanted to give the kidney. In this case, Clouse could donate her kidney to someone else in exchange for Gentry getting a kidney from a different donor.
Clouse was game. “I knew I wanted something to happen for Jason, and I was happy to donate, however it happened,” she said.
“This chain gives me faith in humankind.”-Jason Gentry, kidney transplant recipient”
Randall S. Sung, M.D., a transplant surgeon and professor at Michigan Medicine, said that in its simplest form, a paired kidney exchange involves just two pairs.
“Each pair is not compatible with each other, but the donor from the first pair is compatible with the recipient from the second pair and the donor from the second pair is compatible with the recipient from the first pair,” Sung said. “So the recipients essentially swap donors.”
Sometimes, though, paired kidney exchanges are extended into chains where even more people are involved. That’s what happened for Clouse and Gentry, who became part of a chain of kidney transplants that involved six different institutions and six pairs of donors and recipients in states ranging from Virginia to Tennessee to, of course, Michigan.
Sung, who performed the operation to remove Clouse’s kidney for transplant, says that U-M participates in a paired kidney chain every month or two but that the size of the one involving Gentry and Clouse was particularly impressive.
“This chain took a great deal of collaboration, flexibility and organization,” said Krista Sweeney, the transplant coordinator for the Alliance for Paired Donation, which coordinated the chain. “To me, what made this chain so special was not only its size but its diversity. It is a true illustration of how kidney disease can affect any race, gender, or age – and a beautiful representation of how a single act of kindness can impact the lives of many.”
Gentry received his kidney from a donor at Vanderbilt Transplant Center while Clouse gave hers to a recipient through Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s transplant program.
Both operations went well. Gentry said his kidney function improved quickly after the transplant, and he now has much more energy, even more than he’d had after his first transplant.
“This is like the Incredible Hulk’s kidney,” he said.
Time to tell the story
Clouse, too, recovered quickly from her procedure and was back to her regular CrossFit routine within a few weeks.
But she was left a little wistful, wondering who had received her kidney and how they were doing – generally, those involved in paired kidney exchanges are anonymous to each other, unless both the donor and recipient agree they’d like to communicate – as well as how else she might be able to help.
So, when the Today Show came emailing with the opportunity for those involved in the cross-country kidney exchange to discuss their experience, Clouse was eager to participate.
“It was time now to tell the story, to talk about paired donation, to talk about what the options are, to share and educate more,” she said.
On December 15, seven of the participants in the exchange, including Clouse and Gentry, joined a Zoom call with Kate Snow, a senior national correspondent for NBC News. They sat in their own homes and workplaces across the country, separated geographically. But as they spoke with one another, the kinship was obvious. They were forever linked by shared need and generosity, gratitude and purpose.
As Gentry said on the call, “This chain gives me faith in humankind.”
Clouse was particularly overcome with emotion when meeting Brian Holloway, the man who had received her kidney for the first time.
“People like Lisa are just awesome because she didn’t know who I was,” Holloway said. “She didn’t know who I voted for. She didn’t know what my beliefs are. She just wanted to change someone’s life.”
“I’m so happy that so many people were helped out, but I cannot explain what a blessing this has been for me,” Clouse said.
Learn more about living kidney donation at the U-M Health Transplant Center or call 1-800-333-9013 for more info.