When Robbie Turner was faced with finding a kidney donor, a Facebook connection with a former co-worker not only rekindled a friendship, but formed a lifelong bond between kidney donor and kidney recipient.
At just 28 years old, Robbie Turner was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a condition that over time would reduce her kidney function and require that she receive a kidney transplant. Her doctors told her that she would most likely need a new kidney before her 45th birthday. When she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Texas in 1995, the first thing Turner did was find a nephrologist at Stanford Health Care. She selected Richard Lafayette, M.D., professor of medicine (nephrology), and has been under his care ever since. All along, the Stanford team counseled her that her best chance of survival was to receive a living donor kidney before her kidney function degraded to the point of needing dialysis. Relatives, loved ones, friends, and even individuals who wish to remain anonymous can serve as living donors.
“Living donations offer significant advantages to the recipient,” said Marc Melcher, M.D., a Stanford Health Care transplant surgeon. “Living donations offer the best chance for compatibility between recipient and donor and longer than average kidney survival rates compared with kidneys from deceased donors. They also spare an individual patient from a long and uncertain wait for an organ.”
Thousands of patients die each year waiting for an organ, or become too sick while waiting to be successfully transplanted. According to the National Kidney Foundation, there were more than 100,000 people awaiting kidney transplants in 2016. Of those, about 17,000 received transplants, the majority from deceased donors and 6,000 from living donors. Since the Stanford Kidney Transplant Program started in 1991, its doctors have performed more than 2,200 kidney transplants. This year, the Stanford team performed between 120 to 130 kidney transplants, its biggest year since 1998, said Melcher. Of those transplants, approximately 40 were made possible by living donors.
For more than 20 years, Turner was closely watched by Lafayette and the nephrology team at Stanford Health Care. She was diligent with her diet, stayed physically active and pampered her kidney and her health. But as she neared her 59th birthday, her lab results showed her organ decline accelerating. With the specter of kidney transplant becoming a reality, Turner met with a Stanford nutritionist, and began following an even stricter diet, cutting out sugar, dairy, and salt.
“They thought I’d need a transplant in three to four months, but my clean eating habits kept me stable an entire year,” said Turner. During that time, she began her search for a living donor. For years, she had assumed her husband would be her donor. He was a perfect match. But after being diagnosed and treated for cancer, he was no longer eligible. That meant starting a search from scratch, and revealing her medical condition, which she had kept private her entire life.
Turner began the search within her own large, extended family. Many were willing to donate, but had medical conditions that disqualified them. Turner expanded her search to include her network of friends from church, work, and the scuba community. One of her coworkers suggested she become more public with her search to improve her odds. He created a Facebook page, “A Kidney for Robbie Turner,” and uploaded videos of Turner telling her story. By casting her net beyond the people in her immediate social circle, Turner had 12 individuals come forward to be donors. One was a former co-worker, Nona Reid, who still lived in the Dallas area. She and Turner had lost touch for more than 15 years, but had recently reconnected via Facebook.
Reid and her husband had listened to a podcast about kidney donations a year ago, and both were inspired to want to donate if the opportunity presented itself. When she saw Turner’s video last October, she immediately told her husband she wanted to fill out the application. “He was all for it,” she said. Over the next four months, Reid underwent testing, clearing each hurdle, and moving on to the next step.
“I was the number one match,” she said, “but the only one who lived out of state.” Being Turner’s kidney donor meant flying to California in February for testing and evaluation, and then back again in March for surgery and recovery. On March 22, Turner was up early and at Reid’s side until she was taken into surgery. Turner received her new kidney later that same day. Dr. Melcher performed both surgeries.
“I am extremely blessed to have Nona as a friend and I’m grateful and awed by her gift of life for me,” said Turner. “She is my ‘kidney sister.’ I will take the best care of this kidney as if I was taking care of her.”
“It’s a fantastic feeling to know you’ve helped someone,” said Reid, who is fully recovered, back to her normal exercise, work and travel routines, and busy raising the 10-month-old Labrador puppy she got a month after her surgery. The dog’s name—Stanford—was inspired by her journey and the outstanding care she received along the way. “Dr. Melcher and the staff were all amazing,” she said. “I love them all.”