New Friends for Life After Paired Donor Kidney Exchange

For a few years, Steve Harper had thought about donating a kidney. “I thought it would be a good thing to do,” Steve explains. “And sometimes thinking about doing something makes you feel like a better person and for a time, that was good enough.”

Then one night, Steve, the chief engineer of an ocean-going tugboat, was midway through the night watch in the engine room when he happened to listen to a podcast about Nobel Prize-winning economist Al Roth. Roth won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his work creating markets for items that have no cash value. Items like kidneys. He was instrumental in creating the mathematical algorithms that resulted in the creation of the National Kidney Registry.

In the late night quiet on the tug, 46-year-old Steve started thinking. He had already achieved his lifelong goal to earn a pilot license, and had been wondering what his next goal should be. Maybe this time, he thought, the goal could be something that wasn’t so self-directed. It also might benefit someone else. It could even save someone’s life. “And that is when it occurred to me what my next goal would be, my next great adventure,” Steve says. “I would donate a kidney.”

“It took almost two years to get my work schedule set up to so I could make this happen,” Steve recalls. “Then there were six months of needle sticking, ultrasounds, MRIs, paperwork, psychological interviews and doctor visits. I got injected, inspected, and finally, selected.” 

Steve became one of four people in a paired donor kidney exchange that took place at Virginia Mason. “A beautiful, courageous, and generous woman named Wendy Johnson pledged her kidney to a stranger so her friend, DC Crist, would be moved to the top of the list,” Steve remembers.

Kidney foursome

Friends for life (left to right): Douglas “DC” Crist, Steve Tucker, Debbie Nayakik and Wendy Johnson

Wendy was not a match for DC, but Steve was. It was decided that Wendy’s kidney would go to her match, Debbie Nayakik, who lives in Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States. Before the transplant, both of Debbie’s kidneys were functioning at eight percent. “I prayed each day and night that God would pull me through each day so I was healthy enough to receive a kidney,” Debbie remembers. “Then one evening I got the call that there was a kidney for me.

“I didn’t realize what I was really getting myself into. The doctor told me I couldn’t eat raw whale muktak [outer skin and blubber], which I love. Then it finally soaked in my brain that I needed to do this and I obeyed the rules,” Debbie says. “I was blessed with a healthy kidney, thanks to Wendy. My life has been prolonged so I can see my two grandchildren grow up.”

DC Crist, the second recipient of the paired kidney donation, suffered from polycystic kidney disease. Clusters of cysts had developed in his kidneys and had become enlarged, diminishing kidney function over time. He and Wendy are both interested in civic causes on Bainbridge Island and their paths crossed often. When Wendy learned DC needed a kidney she felt compelled to investigate the donation process and eventually decided to donate.

“[Steve’s] kidney was essentially looking for a home. Thankfully that was me.”
— DC Crist

“Without Wendy donating her kidney on my behalf, I wouldn’t have had anything to trade for Steve’s kidney,” DC says. “I would have been just one of thousands of Americans on the waiting list. Because Wendy’s kidney was donated on my behalf for Debbie and Steve’s kidney was donated altruistically [without expectation], his kidney was essentially looking for a home. Thankfully that was me.”

The transplant team at Virginia Mason has performed more than 1,000 living donor transplants and is well up to the challenge of a paired kidney exchange. Transplant surgeons Nick Cowan, MD, and Jared Brandenberger, MD, operated, first on DC and Steve, then a week later on Wendy and Debbie.

“I felt a thousand times better immediately,” DC recalls.

Because the transplants occurred locally, as opposed to implanting a kidney that had been transported from another facility, the four participants had the unique opportunity to meet each other face to face. “We set up a meeting with DC two days after the surgery,” Steve recalls. “The meeting was great. He looked terrific. His creatinine level was lower than mine. We found that we had a lot in common. We are both sailors, we both play guitar and we both have amazing life partners.”

All four paired exchange partners eventually met. “I traded a kidney for three new friends.” Steve adds, “Good trade.”

Steve has a heartfelt message for the care team that performed the transplants: “There is no way for me to express my respect and admiration for the incredibly smart, dedicated, well-trained people who make miracles like this possible. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for studying so much harder in college than I ever did. You are the true heroes of this story.”

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