Kidney Donor Gives Organ to Stranger on a Whim

PHOTO: Celia Oyler offered her own kidney to John Young, a virtual stranger.
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Celia Oyler had never been in the hospital, never had a stitch and had never even taken a prescription drug.

But last June, the 55-year-old professor gave doctoral student John Young -- a virtual stranger -- her kidney, enduring every invasive test and eventually transplant surgery to save his life.

As Oyler tells it, her decision was rooted in compassion but executed on a whim last spring in the hallways of Teachers College Columbia University.

Oyler, director of inclusive education programs, is a white lesbian. Young, 49, is African-American and had just completed his doctorate in curriculum and teaching when they found they were a match last spring.

Live organ transplants, especially for African-Americans, are hard to come by. And Oyler was also fast approaching 60, when she would be deemed too old to donate.

Transplant experts say that "stranger" donors, though still small in numbers, are on the rise. Since 2000, they have jumped from 14 to 26 percent of all live donors, according to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

"I had seen John in the hall and I knew who he was, but didn't know him," said Oyler.

"I happened to see him standing there, and it was a little awkward," she said. "I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'Not much…because I have to do dialysis three or four times a week.'"

Young told her he had been cleared for an organ wait list and "maybe it would work out and after a few years I'll get a kidney on time."

"He's an extremely positive person and I am not," she said. "I am talking to this guy and I think maybe he is dying. So I very impulsively I said, 'What's your blood type?' And he said 0-positive and I said, 'Who knows, maybe we'll be a match.'"

They were -- and even learned their birthdays were a day apart.

"I didn't know her that well and was really taken aback that in just minutes she would make such a huge offer," said Young, who has now fully recovered and is off dialysis. "It was a tremendous obligation, and I was really shocked."

Oyler had always listed herself as an organ donor on her driver's license and all her family knew that she wanted her body parts used for science, but this was impetuous.

"I am kind of a jump-first, think-later person," she said.

When she returned home, Oyler realized, "What have I gotten myself into now?"

"I was actually nervous telling my wife I had made this impetuous offer," she said. "She always gives me a hard time. 'Celia, it's not like lending your car.'"

Every step of the way, the medical staff at New York's New York-Presbyterian Hospital told Oyler, "If you don't want to go through with this for any reason, we never tell the recipient, only that you're not a match."

But Oyler knew that once she had committed to Young, "I wouldn't be able to not do it."

According to the National Kidney Foundation, 4,573 kidney patients died while waiting for a life-saving transplant in 2008. Of the 14,208 organs that were donated overall in the United States that year, less than half were live organ donors like Oyler.

"As a group, live donors work better and last longer than dead donors," said Dr. David Cronin, a transplant surgeon at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "It is taken alive and passed all the evaluations and we know it's a good kidney."

Young's kidneys had begun to fail when he was 47 because of high blood pressure and diabetes. That and end-stage kidney disease is more common among African-Americans because of genetic and social factors like access to health care, according to Cronin.

Dialysis consumed Young's days. He would get up at 4 a.m. to be on the machine by 5 a.m., then spend his afternoons and evenings as a community activist mentoring black youth.

"It was very draining," he said.

Finding that Oyler was a match was not uncommon, according to Cronin. But her commitment to a stranger was.

"These people are really and truly humanitarians," he said. "They give to charity, donate blood and are in humanitarian professions. I have had these donors, and it's quite moving to see someone give of themself in this way, and they do it when they are still alive."

But the medical system was baffling and eye-opening to Oyler, who had always been healthy.

"In the past, I had been not very empathetic with people who had medical problems," she said.

Oyler underwent a colonoscopy, a mammogram and a CT scan to determine that she didn't have cancer, as well as EKG and fasting blood sugar tests. She waited in labs for hours and got "really cranky."

As they waited for test results, Young asked Oyler to dinner to thank her for her generosity, but she declined.

"I think I was afraid to get to know him," she said. "I was afraid, in case I decided to back out."

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