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."

Kidney Donor Bounced Back Quickly

Transplantation was scheduled for June 16, 2011.

"I was the first to go under the proverbial knife," said Young. "When I awoke from the anesthesia and was groggy, she came out. She said, 'hello,' and it was very meaningful and heartfelt."

Young had a long difficult recovery -- the kidney was nearly rejected at the onset.

Oyler, who had a less-invasive laproscopic procedure, was up and feeling normal within days. The only physical reminder of her gift is a two-inch scar on her bikini line.

When they woke up Oyler in the recovery room, nurses wheeled her by Young. "It was one of those moments, I felt, 'Whoa, I helped this guy get a second lease on life.'"

In the end, on a subway ride recently, the pair realized they had much in common -- a deep commitment to education and social justice.

After getting an Ivy League education, Young returned to Harlem to set up an organization to help young African Americans climb the mobility track at good private schools and colleges.

"I came to [Teachers College] to do racial justice," he said. "It's what gives me energy and passion, particularly working with families."

He tells aspiring men, "You are the leaders and your community is depending on you."

Oyler, herself, had worked in with African-Americans on Chicago's South Side and said, "I felt good about his passion."

She and her wife have also committed to adopting an older child.

Now, seven months later, both Oyler and Young have healed from surgery.

"It wasn't actually that bad," said Oyler.

Transplant experts agree there are no statistical disadvantages for donors, given that they are so healthy to begin with to pass screening.

Young said he is feeling "better and better" and is more conscious of what he eats, trying to control his diabetes."

Oyler is "crazy busy," but she plans to invite Young to dinner. They have begun regular email contact since the surgery.

"It's weird to think there is a piece of my body walking around in someone else's body," she said.

Now, she tells her story to anyone who will listen -- about the importance of live kidney donation. And Young, also inspired by her act of love, has decided he, too, will offer to be a donor.

That, said Cronin, is also possible as there is an overwhelming need for other organs like lungs, hearts, skin and corneas.

In the end, Oyler's wife and her parents supported her decision.

"Everybody was kind of pleased I helped a guy out," she said. "I don't think I feel altruistic. My joy is more about helping people -- and this is just a body part."

But Young, raised a Baptist and still religious, said he knows in his heart Oyler's gift was a "selfless act."

"She's a very altruistic person," he said. "I also think it was fate and that God was involved with this. The stars or the moon or the planets were aligned. I don't know if she is an agnostic or an atheist, but I think she has a very spiritual aspect -- a grounding in some humanistic perspective."

"She is a really, really wonderful person," said Young. "I am so grateful to her."

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