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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Love comes in many forms, and for five complete strangers, love came in the shape of a kidney.
This Valentine’s Day marks the one-year anniversary of a kidney swap transplant that involved two couples who had never met and a selfless friend who gave the gift of life.
Kristen and Lukas Macurdy live in Mars. In February of last year, they had just agreed to get pregnant via surrogate. Kristen’s kidney was failing and she couldn’t carry baby Dominic on her own. Her husband, Lukas, wanted to donate his kidney to his wife, but they weren’t a good match.
“Obviousl,y I wanted to donate to her,” said Lukas. “When I got the call and they said we weren’t a match, I was completely devastated.”
But the couple found hope in the form of a kidney swap program through UPMC.
“On Jan. 11 we transferred our embryo to our surrogate and then the next day is when we got the call that the match had been found through the swap program,” said Kristen.
Unbeknownst to them, another Pittsburgh couple was going through the exact same thing at the exact same time.
Stephanie and Scott McDonough live in Irwin and never met the Macurdys. Scott’s autoimmune disease left him tied to a dialysis machine each night with two small kids. His wife, Stephanie, found herself unable to help.
“It was very disappointing that we were not a match, that I was not a blood type match for him,” said Stephanie.
Two couples, two spouses, zero matches. Until one morning when everything changed.
“I said ‘Well, can you have donors outside your family?’ And she said ‘Yeah, anyone can go and see if they’re a match,’ and I said ‘I’ll go,'” said Christine Guenther, friend of Stephanie’s.
Christine and Stephanie worked out together as gym buddies at a South Side Crossfit gym. Although only casual friends, Christine felt inspired to help out.
“So my friend had actually never met Scott,” said Stephanie. “We worked out together and just in talking, she offered to get tested to see if she could donate to him.”
Christine was willing to put it all on the line and began the testing.
“And I wasn’t a good match for him, which was initially a disappointment,” said Christine. “But at the transplant hospital, they mentioned we could go in as a swap pair, which means that they find someone else that needs a kidney that I am a good match to and their donor is a match to Scott and so we can have this little group swap.”
That’s the beauty of “the swap.” If you’re not a match for your friend or loved one, you can offer up your kidney to someone else who you do match, and get a kidney for your loved one or friend in return.
Even though they had never met before, the program alerted Christine that she matched Kristen perfectly. On the day of the surgery, all Christine knew was that her kidney was going to a local soon-to-be mother.
“Kristen has my left kidney so we call it ‘leftie,’ so she sends me like funny texts from “leftie” like, ‘Leftie says hi’ and ‘Leftie says happy birthday,'” she says.
And as fate would have it, Kristen’s husband Lukas, saddened that he couldn’t originally donate to his wife, ended up being Scott’s perfect match.
“One year ago today we were probably just finishing up the surgeries and he was the last one to come out of surgery,” said Stephanie.
They all laid in hospital beds at UPMC Montefiore, ready to begin the process of recuperating. One year later, at the McDonough’s home in Irwin, they came together as friends.
“I gave up a kidney, but I have life-long friends now, and two additional families, so honestly I think I got the better end of this deal,” said Christine.
These five people now share more than just organs.
“It’s like another birthday so its another day to celebrate life,” said Scott.
Because love doesn’t always come in the shape of a heart.
“Sometimes you think in hearts, but I give you a kidney instead, so Happy Valentines Day!”
UPMC has been doing “living donor transplants” for 30 years, but roughly a third of kidney failure patients who have a willing, living donor can’t receive that kidney due to incompatibility. Those who have used the program call UPMC’s kidney exchange program a literal lifesaver for them and their families.
For more information, including how to become a living donor, visit UPMC’s Living Donor Transplant Facebook page here.