A gift of true love: Are you a potential donor?

When Joan and Tom called their adopted infant their little angel, they had no idea how right they were. Or how, 39 years later, that baby would save Joan’s life.    

Joan had experienced kidney problems as a child. As an adult, she was diagnosed as bi-polar. Over time, taking Lithium helped with mood swings but damaged her kidneys. Joan’s doctor recommended a new organ. Until she could receive one: dialysis.

As anyone who has endured the wait for a transplant knows, finding a match is not easy. If a loved one will donate, the arduous wait can be shortened. Joan, from Alexandria, MN, had four sisters and three brothers. They grew up together on a farm. All were willing to donate a kidney to their beloved sibling.

For various reasons, none could.

Kidneys filter our blood. Three blood conditions must match for a donor to be approved. Blood types must be compatible. HLA, or tissue type, must, too. (HLA stands for human leukocyte antigen. Antigens are proteins on our cells. Six are most important. It’s rare to find six matching antigens. Anti-rejection drugs combat the problem.) Last, the cross match must be negative.  (The recipient can’t have antibodies that fight donor cells.)

Joan and Tom have one child. They adopted Brian when he was about 6 weeks old through Lutheran Social Service, an agency in Minneapolis. Brian’s birth parents were unwed college students. Brian grew up to be a terrific young man who eventually took over Tom’s four-generation family business wholesaling candy, tobacco and groceries.

Brian got tested as a potential donor. Amazingly, though Joan’s biological relatives didn’t work out as donors, her adopted son did.

Joan wanted to spare Brian. She was put on the donor list, warned that the wait could take three to five years. (Nearly one third of patients on the list die waiting.) After about a year, one morning at 3 a.m. Joan received a call. Someone was killed in a traffic accident. University Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis, where early kidney transplants took place in the 1950s, had an organ. Joan was second in line. She and Tom sped to Minneapolis and arrived in two hours.  Joan was prepped for surgery.

Then they heard: The first recipient proved compatible. They headed back home.

Blood tests showed Joan becoming dangerously close to end-stage renal disease. Meanwhile, anticipating that he might be his mother’s donor, Brian had given up tobacco and alcohol for the past year. Tom called Brian with an update. His son said, “I really want to do this for my mom.” 

Three weeks later, Joan and Tom and Brian and wife Drea drove to the hospital. Joan and Brian were prepped in separate hospital rooms. They donned gowns, lay down on separate gurneys, waited together outside nearby operating rooms.

As Tom recalls, “The second day after surgery, as Brian lay there with tubes and a catheter sticking out of his body, he might have had second thoughts. After that, he never looked back.”

The doctor who performed the transplant told Joan, “You got a good one.”

Joan says, “There’s something I say to Brian that expresses how I feel about him. ‘You didn’t grow under my heart. You grew in my heart.'”

Joan’s kidney is expected to last a lifetime. Six years later, she’s busy playing bridge (sometimes with your bridge-challenged author) and, as she puts it, “taking care of Tom.”

“Yeah,” says Tom.  “After 50 years, she’s still trying to remodel me.”


Are you a potential donor? You won’t know if you haven’t taken part in one of the many  programs to connect donors with life-saving medical care. One way to find out more is to visit www.OrganDonor.gov, an online hub of information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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6 thoughts on “A gift of true love: Are you a potential donor?

  1. Cara Kazanowski

    Suzy, Your journalism background shows through in your ability to discover and write up such inspirational stories as Joan, Tom and Brian’s. Thanks — these are a real life! Cara

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