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‘The Kidney Sisters’: The story behind Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s 10,000th organ transplant

[Left to right] Donor Randi Halpern, Dr. Majella Doyle, donor Kate Tucker, recipient Marti Simon, Dr. Yiing Lin, and recipient Pat Conway [Photo courtesy of Barnes -Jewish Hospital]

They call themselves the “Kidney Sisters.” Two pairs of women – best friends Marti and Randi and mother/daughter duo Pat and Kate – who once were strangers to each other but now are interconnected by an unbreakable bond.

Marti Simon, of Ballwin, and Randi Halpern, of Chesterfield, have been best friends for years. The depth of that friendship was proven while the two were at a dinner party a couple of years ago.

“We were saying bye and I took Marti’s hands in mine and they were so cold and I said, ‘Why are your fingers so cold? What’s going on?’” Randi recalled.

It was then that Marti told Randi her health was declining and she needed a kidney. Randi said her response was instantaneous. “I said, ‘I’ll give you my kidney.’ I didn’t even think twice about it.”

“I had polycistic kidneys. My mother had it 20 years ago. I tried to be a donor for her and found out I had the same thing,” Marti explained.

Due to the condition of her kidneys, Marti had to go on dialysis. She gets emotional when she thinks back to that dinner party.

“She saved my life,” she said of Randi.

Randi did save Marti’s life, but not in the way the two had anticipated.

In late 2018, it was determined that Randi’s kidney would not be compatible in Marti’s body – news they both described as “devastating.”

Enter Pat Conway, of Creve Coeur, and her daughter, Kate Tucker, of Lake Saint Louis. Their story closely parallels that of Marti and Randi.

As a result of Pat’s diabetes, her kidneys were beginning to fail.

“I went to my kidney doctor. She told me my numbers were not good and I was going to have to go on dialysis,” Pat explained. “Kate was on her honeymoon so when she came back I told her about it. The minute I said it, she said ‘I’m going to donate a kidney.’ It made me cry.”

Though Pat was hesitant about putting her daughter through such a procedure, she said Kate was adamant. Then, in late 2018, they received the news that Kate was not a match for her mother.

“I was surprised, because in my head I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it. She’s gonna get my kidney,’” Kate said. “Then, you know, disappointment when I found out I wasn’t a match.”

But the women weren’t out of luck. They had the option to essentially do a trade with the hospital’s paired exchange program.

When a patient has a willing donor but their organs are not compatible, the two have the option of entering into the paired exchange database that can cross-match them to people in the same situation – bringing many happy endings to stories that started out with the words, “Sorry, you’re not a match.”

Such is the story of how Pat ended up with Randi’s kidney and Marti ended up with Kate’s kidney – the story of the Kidney Sisters.

‘This story keeps getting better’

The four procedures took place within the first week of January and went off without a hitch. Majella Doyle, MD, performed the donors’ surgeries, and Yiing Lin, MD, performed the recipients’ surgeries.

Five weeks post-procedure, the surgeons reported all four women were doing fantastic, and Marti and Pat noted feeling almost instantly better with their new kidneys. But the story doesn’t end there.

It turns out that Pat and Randi were the hospital’s 9,999th organ transplant, making Marti and Kate the hospital’s 10,000th –  a huge milestone for the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center.

“When we found out we were the 10,000th, I was like this story just keeps getting better and better,” Kate said.

On Friday, Feb. 8, with their surgeons, nurses and other hospital staff by their side, the Kidney Sisters met for the first time in-person at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The reunion was full of hugs and happy tears, along with the poignant recognition of the power of love and the gift of giving someone a new lease on life.

The transplant center, which recently celebrated 55 years of life-saving transplants, is the 12th largest in the nation.

“Very few programs nationwide have performed 10,000 transplants,” Gene Ridolfi, RN, administrative director of the transplant center, said.

“It really is overwhelming when you look at how many lives have been touched over now five decades of experience. All of us are very proud of the work our entire team does,” said Jeffrey Crippin, MD, medical director of the transplant center. “These four people are an example of how our transplant team contributes to forever changing lives within our community.”

The transplant specialists at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine are leaders in living-donor transplants. But Crippin emphasized, “We couldn’t do this without donors.” He encouraged the public “to sign their donor cards and make sure your family knows that that’s what you would want,” which makes the process much easier. Additionally, he encourages people to “consider being a living donor, as we’ve seen today.”

To register to be an organ donor or for more information on organ donation, visit organdonor.gov, registerme.org, or BarnesJewish.org/transplant.

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