A three-family kidney swap
Steven Thorpe lives with the A team. First off, wife Audrey, the love of his life. His rock. His college sweetheart married him, he jokes, to add a proper “e” to her maiden name, Thorp. Then there are his A-for-apple daughters: Abbey, 7, and twins Avery and Addison, 4. Cornsilk-blonde bundles of joy. The beats to his heart.
A happy bunch, this Memorial family, living the always-in-perpetual-motion existence that comes with work and raising kids. But woven into their reality was an undercurrent of urgency that hovered like a slab of menacing clouds.
Steven needed a kidney.
Born with a condition called Eagle-Barrett syndrome, his kidneys never fully developed. They weren’t sufficient for a child, let alone a grown man. So, at age 7, surgeons plucked them out, replacing them with one adult kidney. Quirky thing about the bean-shaped organs. They come in pairs, but one can get the job done.
Donated kidneys have a shelf life, so to speak. And that kidney had run its course by the time Steven turned 20, necessitating another transplant. Then bloodwork in the spring of 2017 revealed the second transplanted organ was sputtering toward its last gasp. So, at age 35, he was on the waitlist for yet a third.
“I had a number of hospital visits, with my doctor trying new drugs and things of that nature to try to extend the life of that second transplant,” Steven explains. “He tried to hold me off from starting dialysis as long as possible.”
But start he did by March of 2018: thrice-weekly, four-hour sessions that saw him tethered to a machine as it siphoned the blood from his body, purified it, then pumped it back in, mimicking a kidney’s function. The busy financial advisor used the time to get work done. “It was the new normal,” he says. His lifeline.
Steven was a difficult match. Exposure to foreign tissue from previous transplants left him with a high level of antibodies that would reject certain donor organs. Spring tapered into summer, summer into fall. Then winter. Again and again, seasons passed. No kidney.
There had been a potential donor, but not by any means a perfect match. It would have required him to undergo a month of plasmapheresis, a procedure that filters harmful antibodies from the plasma portion of the blood.
“It wasn’t perfect, some pros and cons,” Steven says. “They hoped that by lowering those antibodies I would be a better match for this potential donor. That was the plan after talking to my doctor last June.”
Then came a phone call just days later. Nix the previous plan.
“We have found a great match for you,” said his nephrologist from Houston Methodist Hospital, explaining why this particular kidney was the one. The doctor’s voice peaked with excitement. The transplant would take place on June 16.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, is this really going to happen?’ Am I going to get this kidney?’ You have a thousand thoughts,” recalls Steven. “Well, turns out it did happen, in the most exponentially wonderful, unexpected way.”
Throw a pebble into a still pond and ripples splay outward in concentric circles, extending wider and wider. Gretchen Anderson would be that pebble, setting off a ripple effect that resulted in a six-person, three-family kidney swap. She just didn’t know it yet.
She’d gone to Houston Methodist Hospital last June to undergo pre-op bloodwork.
Her older brother, Jimmy Stewart, 72, of Tanglewood, was to be the recipient of her kidney in just a few days. At least that was the plan, until her nephrologist came to her with an intriguing alternative.
“He said, ‘I have a young man who has been on dialysis for a long time, and he’s been needing a kidney for three and a half years, and no one has been a match for him until you came along. Your kidney lit up like a jewel,” recalls Gretchen, a West University resident. “He told me the man was very ill and had three small girls.”
Gretchen’s brother Jimmy, the doctor explained, would still get a kidney. He was an easy match, better served with a large male kidney than petite Gretchen’s. The potential donor had been a match for his wife but was happy to donate to a stranger because his spouse, too, would receive an excellent match from someone else.
A win-win, the doctor said.
It’s called a kidney swap: A person donates a kidney to someone who is a compatible match. Then that recipient provides someone willing to repeat the favor on their behalf, someone who will give their kidney to another in need.
“With that assurance, it was a no-brainer,” says Gretchen. Yes, she’d be happy to donate a kidney to the young man with three girls. Surgery would take place on June 16.
Gretchen, 67, an affable sort, cherishes friendships she’s forged since college days. Over the years, she’s kept up with former University of Texas sorority sisters Lynn Russell and Leslie Thorp (now last name Kappler), among others.
As she settled in for coffee after completing bloodwork, she received a text from Lynn.
If you’re still at the hospital, watch for Leslie, Lynn wrote, explaining that an anonymous kidney donor had been found for Leslie’s son-in-law, Steven. Leslie was at Houston Methodist with her daughter Adrienne Thorp. Adrienne was undergoing tests to determine if she’d qualify as a kidney donor on Steven’s behalf.
Gretchen hadn’t been aware that her friend Leslie’s son-in-law was in need of a kidney. She pondered the kidney-swap conversation with her nephrologist that morning. Hmm. She texted Lynn back:
“Is Steven in his 30s?”
“Does he have three small girls?”
“Has he needed a kidney for three and a half years?”
“Lynn, I think it’s me!”
Now, it’s not the norm that a donor and recipient know each other’s identities before transplant surgery, unless it’s a family member or friend-to-friend match, something of that sort. There are privacy and confidentiality protocols in the transplant world.
But these dots had been connected. Cell phones were burning up with texts. Phone calls were flying.
“Leslie called me,” recalls Gretchen. “She said, ‘You know what’s happening, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ We both kind of cried. She told me, ‘You don’t know how long they’ve been looking for a kidney for Steven and what this means to the family.’ I told her I completely understand because I know what a donor means to Jimmy.”
The day before surgery, Gretchen went for a Covid-19 test, the last in a spate of such tests before the transplant procedure. She spied a face at Houston Methodist that looked remarkably like Leslie’s. That of Adrienne (Leslie’s daughter) who had, indeed, qualified as a kidney donor on behalf of her brother-in-law Steven. Her organ was destined for the wife of the man who was donating to Gretchen’s brother. Circle complete. Recipients and donors paired up.
The two chatted. Then Adrienne introduced Gretchen to Steven, who was in the hospital waiting room.
“What do you say to someone who is about to change your life in the most amazing way possible?” says Steven, who struggled for words. Adrienne snapped a picture of the two. Steven texted Gretchen the evening before surgery, thanking her for the gift that would transform his life, his family’s world.
The next day, surgeons at the Houston Methodist J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center delicately extracted Gretchen’s kidney, stitching it into Steven where it joined with blood vessels, plumping to a rosy pink.
“It’s the most beautiful story in the world,” Adrienne says of the way things played out. “Steven is my very best friend, one of the best people in the whole world, so the fact that he could be healthier and feel better and be with the girls and my sister Audrey and have more energy… well, that means the world to me.”
Adrienne, who had surgery the following week, would love to meet the recipient of her kidney one day. “I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to meet her because I’ve seen the special relationship between Gretchen and Steven. A bonus is, I’ve really gotten to know Gretchen, too, as a friend. I just love her. We share a lot, coming from the same donor side of surgery.”
A chart of some kind would be helpful in explaining the kidney swap to others, quips Adrienne, godparent to Steven and Audrey’s children.
“I don’t know where my sister gets her strength from, but she’s been everyone’s rock,” she says of Audrey. “She powers through. It’s nice that they can get off of that roller coaster now.”
For a while, Gretchen’s brother Jimmy didn’t see an end to his roller coaster ride. Jimmy was the last in the chain to receive his kidney after surgery was delayed – twice – due to positive tests for Covid-19. He was supposed to receive his kidney in June, the same day as Steven.
“The day before my first scheduled surgery the doctor told me I’d tested positive,” says Jimmy, who was totally befuddled. He had no symptoms and remained asymptomatic during the weeks he remained positive. “I’d had several tests in the days leading up to the initial surgery date. All had been negative,” says the grandfather of five.
He needed two negative results at least a week apart before surgery could be rescheduled. He got those two negatives, and surgery was slated for Sept. 18. Then, boom, canceled again just before the big day. Another positive Covid test.
“That really floored everybody, that I got shut out twice. But even if it was a false positive, they had to follow procedure,” says Jimmy, who was on dialysis for nearly 14 months before receiving his kidney on Oct. 9.
Worth the wait, he says. His donor expressed a desire to meet him after surgery, and the kidney coordinators made it happen. Before leaving the hospital, Jimmy and wife Marti got to meet the man who so patiently waited in the wings till surgery could take place. That man and his wife (the recipient of Adrienne’s kidney) prefer to remain anonymous to the outside world.
“I feel great! Day and night difference! And, wow, what a wonderful man,” Jimmy says. “He told his doctor, ‘Just tell me when the surgery’s going to be, and I’ll be there.’ His kidney did fit me better than Gretchen’s would have. My sister is probably 105 pounds dripping weight, a small girl. I’m a 6-foot big boy. I think the doctor thought, ‘We’re going to be stretching it to get her kidney to take care of that big ol’ boy body.
“You’ve got to give Gretchen credit,” he adds. “If not for her, this thing wouldn’t have taken off in a three-way kidney swap. She took that ball and ran with it.”
In the Thorpe household these days, there’s a new normal. One that sees three little girls buzzing around a dad who is home instead of spending chunks of time in a dialysis chair.
Seven months out from surgery, life’s found a blissful cadence.
“I feel phenomenal,” exudes Steven, who has more energy than he’s had in years. “I have significantly more energy. I sleep better. Feel better. I have more time for family. And I have excitement for the future.”
Wife Audrey puts it this way: “Steven is back! We’ve gotten our life back! He’s home with us, and it’s just the most wonderful feeling in the world.” The excitement is reflected in the face of their 7-year-old daughter Abbey, who remembers all too well long hours without dad at home.
Audrey recalls Abbey’s surprised reaction one day, post- surgery, at her dad being in the next room. “It was like, ‘What? Dad’s here and not at dialysis?’”
“We were always straight with Abbey about what dialysis meant for me and why I had to do it,” Steven explains. “The twins were too young to understand.”
It’s true, Steven says, that you don’t realize how bad you feel until you feel so much better. His skin looks healthier. More vibrant. There’s a spark in his eyes.
“It was about a week after surgery, and I was looking at him, and he just looked amazing!” says Audrey. “His eyes were whiter. It was jarring to me because I didn’t realize that he had looked so sick before. It’s as if his skin color had pinked up.”
Audrey recalls meeting Gretchen’s husband, David, while the transplant surgery was underway. She approached, a bit nervous, to thank him for his wife’s selfless gift.
“He was so sweet and laid back and just so thrilled for us,” she says. “He conveyed to me how happy he and Gretchen were for our family. They are amazing, selfless people. Just like my sister Adrienne. She didn’t think twice about being a donor on behalf of Steven. She loves him. She’d do anything for him.”
Steven feels a responsibility to be the best steward possible of his new kidney. He’s looking forward to a momentous celebration with friends and family and all who made it happen, once the pandemic passes.
“I’m so grateful. I feel an obligation to a lot of people to make this kidney last a very long time, not only for my wife and kids, but for Gretchen, Jimmy and my sister-in-law,” he says. “Such wonderful people who did this wonderful thing.”
Editor’s note: For information about how to become a donor, visit the National Kidney Foundation at kidney.org.
Want more buzz like this? Sign up for our Morning Buzz emails.
To leave a comment, please log in or create an account with The Buzz Magazines, Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or Google+. Or you may post as a guest.