WNC an Important Link in
Kidney Donor Chain

This ongoing story with many happy endings began with the August 2015 issue of WNC Woman magazine. Susan Fredriksen, a psychiatrist living in the tiny town of Unaka in Cherokee County, read the article, “Kidney Donor Crusader Is Busting Myths, Opening Doors and Changing Lives.” The story profiled WNC kidney donor Rhonnie Leder. When Rhonnie’s husband was in dire need of a new kidney, neither she nor their three children were suitable matches.

Rhonnie wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, imploring people to consider becoming a living kidney donor to Sam. Six people responded, and one young mother turned out to be a perfect match. Sam received his life-giving kidney, and Rhonnie decided to show her gratitude by donating one of her healthy kidneys to someone else in need.

Rhonnie’s article had a profound impact on Susan. Susan had been on the bone marrow donor list for decades, and was disappointed she aged out when she hit 60. Because of her compassionate nature, Susan desired to continue to be of service to others, but she wasn’t sure, at her age, how to make that happen. Rhonnie changed all that for Susan when she let WNC readers know there was no such age limit for kidney donors. Most importantly, Susan had just lost her beloved husband the year before to ALS.

Rhonnie Leder

“If anything had been available that might have helped him,” Susan said, “I definitely would have found it. There was nothing I could have done for him, but here was something I could do for other people.” She describes it as an emotional “tap on the shoulder,” simultaneously getting her attention, and setting her in motion.

She immediately called WNC Woman and asked if she could connect with Rhonnie. The editor shared Susan’s request with Rhonnie, and the two women met soon afterwards. With Rhonnie’s enthusiastic support, Susan quickly made the decision to proceed, and started contacting various transplant centers. She connected with Tulane University Hospital in New Orleans, and with Zach, a young man in St. Louis desperately needing a kidney.

“He got my attention when he drew a clever cartoon about his deteriorating health,” Susan said. She started the rigorous screening process in December of that
same year.
While she turned out to be a great match for Zach, so did three other people, including his mother. He ultimately decided to go with his mom’s kidney. Zach appreciated Susan’s support, and told her about paired kidney exchange programs for kidney recipients and donors. To possibly eliminate the need to wait up to nine years for a kidney, a person in the program links up with a qualified kidney donor. While the donor is not compatible with that particular person, they help the person move up the list by agreeing to donate one of their healthy kidneys to another person on the list who is also linked with a donor.

The complicated but effective algorithm created by the program links one incompatible pair with another, finding the best matches.

“Kidney paired donations create a chain where people who wouldn’t normally think of donating a kidney step up to help a loved one or friend,” Susan said. These life-saving chains crisscross the country, matching donors and recipients to create miracle after miracle. The longest such chain to date involved 60 different pairs.

Susan was quickly matched with a man but then he suffered a heart attack two weeks before the scheduled surgery, canceling the exchange. The next person on the list was Rhonda – a 53-year-old woman from New Orleans. To ensure that Rhonda could qualify for the Match Pair program, her husband Paul had gastric sleeve surgery to lose over 100 pounds and regain his health. He was approved as a healthy kidney donor, and he and Rhonda took their place in the chain. Susan was a match, and the surgeries were scheduled for August 23rd, 2016 at Tulane – one year from when she first read the WNC Woman article. She was accompanied by her supportive “Kidney Posse,” as she affectionately called her small, close-knit group of friends. Rhonnie Leder, who set everything in motion by sharing her story, even raised the money to cover boarding costs for Susan’s two dogs for the weeks she was in New Orleans.

“Rhonda and I weren’t allowed to meet or even talk before the surgery,” Susan said. “It went so smoothly I was out of the hospital the next day, and she and I were finally able to meet, nine days later.” Susan, who is an engaging and eloquent conversationalist, found herself at a loss for words trying to describe coming face to face with Rhonda.

“It hit me so hard because it was finally so… real!” she said. Since she had no idea who the recipient was, everything surrounding the process was kind of nebulous and disconnected. But gazing into Rhonda’s eyes, surrounded by her own Kidney Posse and Rhonda’s husband and friends, was overwhelming. She tearfully accepted the flowers Rhonda offered, and the heart-felt words expressing her eternal gratitude. Rhonda named the new kidney, “Herbie the Love Bug.”

“You don’t expect any kind of payback,” Susan said. “How do I feel? Sort of awesome! I’m certainly no saint, but I was so happy to be able to help. I did it for love.” A grateful, healthy Rhonda and Susan have kept in touch, and Susan traveled back to New Orleans last February to see Rhonda holding court on a Mardi Gras float. When Rhonda spotted Susan and her Kidney Posse, she tossed not candy or beads, but something special she had created specifically for her donor – a lavishly bedazzled purse with a large Herbie the Love Bug on the front.

This isn’t the only happy ending for Susan’s story. Two other people have received healthy kidneys because of her paired chain – making three lives that have been transformed all because a couple of WNC women cared. Find out more about living kidney donation at www.donatelifenc.org.

Emmy-winner, author, and psychic medium Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent contributor to WNC Woman. Find a complete list of upcoming events, request a private consultation, or sign up for her Practical Spirituality 101 workshop March 3 & 4 on her website at jonnarae.com. Nurses and CNAs receive 14.16 continuing education credits for the class.

Jonna Rae Bartges
Written by Jonna Rae Bartges