Life-Saving Strangers Spur Transplant Miracles

A chain of life-saving transplants turns strangers into family.

ByABC News
October 20, 2008, 1:03 PM

Oct. 20, 2008— -- Carey Barrett, who lives with his wife Monique and their two children in the Atlanta suburbs, made the decision to become a kidney donor.

"I have a beautiful wife, fabulous kids and a great job," the 42 year-old said. "And I have the ability to donate a kidney, so I really wanted to get involved and make a difference."

He is just the latest in a growing chain of people deciding to donate their kidneys to strangers as part of a program inspired by the generosity of one man who in July 2007 made the unusual decision to give his kidney to a complete stranger.

Barrett's donation went to Brenda Chapman, a 41-year-old from Wharton, Texas, who had given up hope when after 2½ years, 10 donors failed. Barrett was the perfect match.

"I had given up, so when I got the call, I didn't believe it, and I still don't believe it," Chapman said. "He is not a stranger anymore. He is definitely going to be my best friend."

Barrett's decision to become a donor came after he saw an ABC News report last summer on the domino-like series of kidney transplants across the country, incited by Matt Jones.

In July 2007, Jones, a 29-year-old father of four, made the unusual decision to give up one of his kidneys to help someone in need.

"You only need one to survive," Jones said. "And there's a lot of other people out there who could use the other one you have."

Watch Barbara Pinto's report tonight on "World News Wth Charles Gibson" at 6:30 p.m. ET.

After running his information through a nationwide database, doctors found a match for Jones' kidney in Barbara Bunnell -- a grandmother from Phoenix, who'd battled kidney disease her entire life.

Click here for more information on the database.

The hereditary kidney disorder she lived with had claimed the lives of her mother and her grandmother, both of whom died in their mid 50s. Her husband, Ron, had hoped to donate his kidney to his wife, but tests showed he wasn't a good match.

"The fact that she gets this kidney, we'll grow old together," said Ron Bunnell. "We'll see our grandchildren grow up. It's just a miraculous gift."

Barbara Bunnell underwent surgery in July 2007 -- since then, she has returned to a normal, fulfilling life.

"Our youngest grandson was born one week before I went into surgery, and he is walking now and he just had chickenpox," she said. "You get into this normal life very quickly."

Gift Keeps on Giving

His wife's gift led Ron Bunnell to the University of Toledo Medical Center, where he sat in a hospital bed ready for surgery to donate his kidney to someone who needed it.

"I've transcended the nervousness. I'm totally relaxed," he said, glancing over at the woman in the hospital bed across the room.

The woman was Angie Heckman, a woman he'd never met before, who was to receive his donated kidney.

Angie spent most of her 32 years on dialysis. She was diagnosed with kidney disease at a young age, and spent 12 hours a week hooked to the blood-cleansing machinery to stay alive. She is also on drugs to control her blood pressure, which has skyrocketed as the result of her kidney disease.

To Heckman, the generosity of Bunnell's gift is overwhelming.

"We don't know each other, and he wants to help so his wife could be well. He's just passing it on," she said, her eyes welling with tears.

"This is the first day of the rest of her life," said Laurie Sarvo, who nervously paced around the room during her daughter's surgery last year.

"He gave me my daughter back for a long time to come," she said.