What it’s like to start an organ donor chain

Beth Galvin gave her kidney to a stranger, kicking off a string of six transplants
Beth Galvin
Galvin holds a photo of the California man who received her kidney.

Photograph by John-Robert Ward II

A couple of years ago I started reporting on organ transplant chains in my job as a medical reporter for FOX 5. It’s this extraordinary thing where someone gives their kidney to stranger, whose loved one then donates their kidney to a stranger, and on and on. I was amazed at the diversity of the people in these chains, who are all linked together by this gift. I started thinking, I could do this. I called the Emory Transplant Center and said, “What would it take to become a living kidney donor?”

When I first brought it up, my husband was a little taken aback. His concern was, “You’re healthy, and you’re choosing to take on all these risks.” I kind of eased him into it. As it got closer, I told the rest of my family. My father was in the later stages of Parkinson’s, and as a child he’d lost his mother to surgery complications. He needed some time to understand it. Eventually he told me, “I’m proud that you’re my daughter.” He passed away a couple of months after the surgery, so hearing that meant a lot.

On June 9, 2015, I was on the operating table at around 6:30 a.m. By lunchtime my kidney was on a Delta jet headed to Los Angeles. They kept it on the flight deck with the crew. A courier picked it up at the airport and brought it to UCLA, and the recipient received it in the late afternoon Pacific Time.

That night my surgeon came upstairs to check on me. He’d gotten a series of texts from UCLA that said, “He’s out of surgery. The kidney’s working really well.” I learned he was a father of two who volunteers as a softball and baseball coach. The last line was, “He said to tell you that you gave him his life back today.” Hearing that, it was the first time I really got emotional.

The donor’s sister gave a kidney to a stranger 48 hours later, and the chain ultimately continued with 12 people: six donors and six recipients. Typically the end of the chain is somebody who does not have a donor or a match.

It’s been a life-altering experience in so many ways. I feel this intense connection with other people, even strangers. As a reporter, I lean toward detached, and now I’ve discovered how much love is out there. —As told to Jennifer Rainey Marquez

This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.