10 strangers come together for a life


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Jul 27, 2023

10 strangers come together for a life

SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Today, an encore presentation of a story we brought you in March - 10 strangers brought together at Houston Methodist Hospital to save the lives of strangers. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED


Today, an encore presentation of a story we brought you in March - 10 strangers brought together at Houston Methodist Hospital to save the lives of strangers.


MICHAEL WINGARD: Howdy. I'm checking in.

SIMON: Michael Wingard, a rangy young man with a small brown scrub brush of a beard, checks into Houston Methodist Hospital. He's in fine health, and he's about to have his left kidney removed. It'll be sewn into the body of a total stranger. It is the day before Michael Wingard turns 20.

M WINGARD: Yeah, it is. But I've barely been thinking about that (laughter). So no cake, unfortunately. It'd be, like, Jell-O or something like that.

SIMON: The Wingard family is from Kerrville, Texas, about four hours west of Houston. Michael's parents, Adrien and Ed, are with him. Their eyes moisten above their masks. Michael's mother tells us...

ADRIEN WINGARD: So I'm very, very nervous and scared and all those emotions. But I'm so proud of him. So when I asked him, he was like, Mom, if I don't do this, no one will. So he knew that his friend needed a kidney and had to do whatever it took to make it happen.

SIMON: Michael Wingard is the first link we met in a 10-person chain of life. He's donating a kidney because Kaelyn, his friend in Kerrville, has one that's failing. Michael's kidney doesn't match her blood or tissues, but transplant specialists at Houston Methodist know Michael's kidney can go to Heather, a 30-year-old woman in Dayton, Texas, whose kidneys cannot clear waste from her blood. She and her twin sister, Staci, already have identical tattoos in Gaelic, but they have some incompatible antibodies, so a 43-year-old woman named Lisa, who dotes on her family and their bulldogs, will donate her kidney to Kaelyn, so her 72-year-old mother, Barbara, a great-grandmother, can receive a kidney from a 67-year-old man, David, and Staci can give her kidney to a 47-year-old man named Javier. So lives can go on. No one in the swap knew the identity of their donors and could choose to keep it that way. But they're bound in a chain of life. We asked Adrien Wingard.

You're a mother. You're a parent. The last thing we want for any of our children is for them to be hurt in any way.


SIMON: Did it ever occur to you to say, don't, please, honey, this could be - I know the odds are small, but, my God, it's serious surgery?

A WINGARD: Yeah. It actually didn't. You know, his mind was set, and we knew that we wouldn't want to change that. He gets to show people by example of how to be a good person.


SIMON: Houston Methodist Hospital is one of the leading transplant centers in the world. The music we're hearing, by the way, is played live on a piano in the lobby of the hospital. There are now about 90,000 people nationally on a waiting list for a new kidney. Many wait years. Some die waiting. Transplanted kidneys from live donors greatly increases the number of kidneys available, and such transplants are performed every month at Houston Methodist. This 10-person procedure is rare. With all the complexities to be synchronized - matching antigens, patient health and COVID - this kidney swap has already had to be postponed three times since December, but no longer.

RICHARD LINK: How are you? Hello.

SIMON: Dr. Richard Link, Michael's surgeon, arrives early the next morning as the sun climbs the Texas sky, and Adrien and Ed Wingard blink out the blurriness and a few tears.

LINK: We're going to take out the left side today. And the left side and the right side are very similar for you. They're very similar in size, but the left side is a little bit easier...

SIMON: Dr. Link explains that with laparoscopic surgery, they can remove a kidney through a 2-inch-long incision.

LINK: And I've probably done more than a thousand that way at this point. You'll be surprised that we can get a kidney out of the size of the hole that we make. It's a little bit of a magic trick. It's really the only magic trick I know how to do.


SIMON: Well, it's funny you say a magic trick. It's also, I mean, this whole story is kind of a miracle, isn't it?

LINK: It is. It is. This is emblematic of, really, an incredible gift, obviously, for you, and also just an incredible system that now exists to allow this type of swapping to facilitate getting kidneys for so many people.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So at this point, you can give, like, hugs, kisses, high fives.

SIMON: And when Michael Wingard is wheeled down a hall for surgery, his parents hold on to him, then on to each other's hands.

ED WINGARD: All right, buddy. Rock it.

M WINGARD: Yeah. Come here, Mama. I love you, Mama.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, let's do it.


LISA JOLIVET: So I give up one of my kidneys to help someone else, and someone else will give a kidney to help keep my mom going.

SIMON: Lisa Jolivet of Houston is 43, and her COVID mask can't conceal some of the same ebullience of her three teen children. She says her 72-year-old mother was at first opposed to her donating a kidney to a stranger to help her.

JOLIVET: You know, she kind of threw in the towel and was just like, this is my fate. And we were like, absolutely not.

SIMON: Lisa says her mother worried that her daughter's act of love might be risky for her health and her own children.

JOLIVET: I think she was more against it because I have my own family, right? She feels as though I'm in the prime of my life. But, you know, after, you know, we researched, I provided confidence in her, like, hey, you know, this works.

LINK: So this is the kidney right here.

SIMON: We were able to be present at the hospital for most of the 10 surgeries. Each one is amazing and intricate, but you begin to see why surgical teams call them routine. The territory inside a body becomes familiar. They know all the stops, turns and shortcuts.

LINK: So this is the renal vein right here, this blue structure. That's an important - obviously, important structure for the transplant. So we're going to preserve it.

SIMON: Dr. Link slices through skin and tissue, around muscle and toward the left kidney. He steers a laparoscope with a tiny light and camera to guide the snips made with a harmonic scalpel that cut and cauterize in the same slice through red veins, small as wisps and globs and smears of yellow fat.

LINK: So we're looking. Now we flip the kidney over, and we're just kind of looking behind it just to see if there's anything else that needs to come.

SIMON: The journey to the left kidney is captured in 3D images that dramatize the colors, and the view is other as well as inner-worldly.

LINK: Let's get a big view.

SIMON: The spleen looks like a smooth, pink bean designed by a big-name architect. The stomach walls are whorls of light pink and ivory like a great cathedral. You are reminded of Shakespeare's phrase, what a piece of work is man.


LINK: So let's see, do you have for us our stuff for the extraction?


LINK: Do you have 15 bag up and ready?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I have 15 bag.

LINK: You've got two loads on the stapler? You've got a clip applier and scissors?


LINK: Perfect.

OSAMA GABER: So can I explain? Hi.

SIMON: Dr. Osama Gaber, head of the Houston Methodist Transplant Program, sits ready at a silver bowl packed with crushed ice. When the fist-sized kidney is slipped out through a slit that looks about as wide as the edge of a credit card, it's rinsed and placed in the bowl. The crushed ice begins to melt against the kidney and turns the bowl slushy and red like a summertime treat.

GABER: The major problem with transplants is as you take organs outside of the body, they die very quickly. So cooling is one technique, and the other one is to put fluids inside the kidney, No. 1, lowering the temperature because that's cool. But No. 2 we're also getting all the blood out.


SIMON: And then he takes off down a hallway with a human kidney packed in a plastic bag inside a white plastic ice bucket of the kind you might find in the room of a chain motel. Most of the time, Dr. Gaber balances the bucket that holds the kidney with one hand. No one he encounters in the hallways stops to chat.

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

SIMON: The kidney is received and sewn into place in the front of the lower belly, where it can be protected by abdominal muscles.


SIMON: When the ureter of the new kidney is connected in the body...

GABER: Oh, I'm sorry (laughter).

SIMON: It spurts out of few drops of urine.

GABER: That was urine, actually. Sometimes they shoot like a little baby boy.

SIMON: Dr. Hemangshu Podder and the surgical team sound as delighted as parents of a newborn over a crib.

HEATHER O'NEIL: Apparently I peed all over the table as soon as we hooked it up.

SIMON: Heather O'Neil told us the day after she got her new kidney...

H O'NEIL: I was like, oh, that's great.

SIMON: ...That she'd be happy to meet whoever it is whose kidney is now hers and working well.

H O'NEIL: I'll be kind of awkward, though, I think, but I feel like I should meet whoever gave me their kidney and thank them.


SIMON: 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. 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.

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

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

JACKSON: And 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 had just been successfully transplanted to her mother, Barbara Moton.

JACKSON: She was one of the recipients.

LINK: She did great. I just finished off her surgery.


LINK: 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: Well, 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 told how her sister Heather had seen a young man in the hospital hallways and guessed he might be her donor.

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


SIMON: And it was, in fact, Michael Wingard, with whom this chain of life began. 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: 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.

S 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: That's Staci O'Neil, who chose to donate to a stranger because her kidney had incompatible antibodies with her twin sister, Heather, knowing 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: But, you know, never in a million years would you think that you could be a part of something like this.

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 nearly 90,000 people on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network waiting list who need a kidney. This year, about 3,500 people died waiting when 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 the spark of life.


SIMON: Nine months later, Houston Methodist tells us that all the patients we got to know, donors and recipients, are doing well. Several have become friends. In a year with so much tough news to cover, their stories are bright reminders of the blessings of life. Samantha Balaban and Gabriel Dunatov produced our stories from Houston Methodist, along with editor D. Parvaz.


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