Two California kidney donors and their recipients—each other’s parents—held a virtual reunion on April 22 during National Donate Life month.
As recently as a few weeks ago, these two families had never met but are now connected through the gift of life and say they’re grateful their paths crossed in this unconventional way.
Their transplant journeys are similar. Jason Turton, 32 of Santa Maria, Calif., wanted to help his mom, Carolyn Turton, 63, suffering from stage 4 kidney failure, but was not a match. Three-hundred miles away in Bishop, Calif., 31-year-old Brittin Gillespie wanted to donate to her father, Jeff Aukee, 56, battling kidney disease with thrice-weekly dialysis treatments, but also was not a match.
Thankfully, all four were enrolled in kidney swap programs via Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) and Loma Linda University Health, making a paired exchange possible.
Mixed & Matched
According to Steven Katznelson, M.D., medical director of CPMC’s Kidney Transplant Program in San Francisco, which has offered the program for nearly two decades, paired kidney exchange allows would-be recipients with willing, yet incompatible donors – such as a spouse or sibling (in this case child to parent) – to match up with other donor-recipient pairs in the same situation.
“After the two pairs are matched with each other,” he said, “they effectively ‘swap’ kidneys, with each donor giving to the recipient in the other pair.”
Jason donated his kidney to Jeff, while Brittin donated her kidney to Carolyn. All four surgeries took place on March 23, 2021, with the two donor kidneys being flown commercially from San Francisco to Los Angeles and vice versa.
Lana Jaber, who helps coordinate CPMC’s living kidney transplants, called the swap “an act of selflessness.”
Jason is a self-described “mama’s boy” who says he had no second thoughts about donating to a stranger. “My mom is getting a kidney and I’m helping someone else. It was an easy decision,” he said.
The same goes for Brittin.
“People who knew of my dad’s situation and who knew I was on a transplant list were surprised that I was willing to undergo such a big surgery. [But] when it’s your parent or loved one in need, you’d do whatever it takes to see them healthy and well,” she beamed.
When news came that matches had been found, Jason recalls a text from his mom noting the other pair’s surgeries in Loma Linda. “I hope this means they’re Dodgers fans,” she wrote.
Virtual “Swap” Meets
While identities of organ donors and recipients are concealed to protect patient privacy, Brittin found Jason through hashtags and geotags on Instagram, where he had shared updates and photos from his and Carolyn’s transplantation at CPMC.
Brittin remembers matching up the surgery date on his social posts and cautiously reaching out. Her message to Jason: “If you named your kidney ‘Leroy,’ I think you were the one who donated to my dad!”
Jason was elated to hear from Brittin and explained how, as a joke early on, he had named his kidney Leroy to bring laughter and lightness to his family’s situation—and it stuck. Even the care teams at both Sutter’s CPMC and Loma Linda University Health started calling the kidney Leroy.
“It’s cool to think that everyone was in on it and kept it going,” Jason chuckled.
Jeff and Jason even talked about “Leroy” on the virtual meet.
“Ol’ Leroy is doing wonders. I’m a healthy guy now. I can go back to doing what I love…being a grandpa to my three grandboys,” shared Jeff.
During the 30-minute Zoom session, the group was eager to finally see one another’s faces. They smiled, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company, all pleased they were each recovering so well.
Carolyn, too, couldn’t thank Brittin enough. “You’ve changed my life,” she said. She had a keychain made for Brittin with the transplant date and a pillow with both their names linked by the words “Donate Life” and a kidney graphic.
Forever connected, this foursome hopes their story inspires others to learn about living organ donation and possibly even give.
“I would do it again 100 times over. It was so worth it,” Brittin smiled.
National Donate Life Month
Observed in April each year, National Donate Life Month helps to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and to honor those that have saved lives through the gift of donation. For information on becoming a donor, visit Donate Life or click here.
For additional information on Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center’s (CPMC) Kidney Paired Donation Program click here.