Advance with MUSC Health

Chain of Blessings

Advance With MUSC Health
November 01, 2021
An MUSC patient in a hospital bed surrounded by his family and care team members.

Life-Saving Eight-Person Living Donor Kidney Transplant Chain Made Possible by Connecting MUSC Patients with Participants at Another Center

More Than a Casserole: Traci's story

Even though she is only two weeks post surgery, it's really no surprise to find that 54-year-old Traci Farrington is on a walk in her neighborhood in Greer, SC, when we speak on the phone. Traci is a middle school physical education teacher and former volleyball and softball coach, so getting back out into the world is important to her. Today she greets her neighbors cheerily — "Hi, good to see ya!" — as she explains to me that she's on her regular walk, trying to build her strength back up. You see, she's fresh from donating her kidney to a stranger and starting an incredible eight-person living donor transplant chain that saved several lives — and changed every single one involved.

"I have a friend whose husband had been on dialysis for about two years," she says, "and I'd kind of been on the journey with her, praying for her and just asking how he's doing and all of that."

Then toward the end of last year, the husband became a candidate to receive a kidney from a living donor through MUSC Health's Living Donor Program. Traci immediately felt led to help, and so she began the approval process. Having the option to truly make a difference in someone's life is what struck her in particular.

"You hurt for people and you want to help people, but most of the time all you can really do is take them a casserole," she laughs. "Prayer, of course, is number one, but then you take a casserole. So when I found out I could do more than take a casserole, I decided to do it."

Though Traci wasn't a match, she was relieved to learn that she could still help by starting a chain through MUSC Health's Living Donor Program, which allows you to donate to another person awaiting a kidney while another donor donates to your intended recipient.

Some chains are as small as two donors and two recipients. This chain grew to four recipients, and four donors. Traci calls it a "wonderful, beautiful miracle."

"I didn't know there was even a thing called a chain," she says. "...And I'm thinking, Who wouldn't do that? If you have the means and you're healthy — and they do all this stuff to make sure that you're gonna be good — and you have a spare to share? I mean, rarely are we put into a situation that our heart breaks for someone and you can do something about it."

This eight-person chain was made possible by an external exchange via a recent partnership between MUSC Health's Kidney Transplant Program and the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation (APKD). Three pairs were done at MUSC, while another pair at an external medical center gave and received a kidney as part of the chain.

"We look for any way to help get our patients to transplant, and the partnership with APKD is simply another great example," says MUSC Health Transplant Administrator Daniel Stanton. "This has been many months in the making, and it is truly satisfying to see these patients' lives be improved so dramatically."

Traci's intended MUSC recipient, who wishes to remain anonymous, received a life-saving kidney from a USPS mail carrier based in Simpsonville, Regina Smith, who was not a match for her husband, Gerald. Gerald would get his kidney from the donor at the other center. Meanwhile, Traci's kidney would be received by a total stranger in North Carolina by the name of Marcus Benjamin. This is part of what Marcus's wife Omeka calls a "chain of blessings."

A Chain of Blessings: Marcus and Omeka's story

In November of 2018, Marcus Benjamin, husband to Omeka Benjamin and father of two, began experiencing a series of symptoms that sent him to the ER: he couldn't keep food down, and he had headaches and high blood pressure. After a few days in the hospital, he was diagnosed with stage three kidney disease.

He spent the next year seeing a nephrologist, changing his diet, and taking blood pressure medication, but his levels remain elevated. By October of 2020, he was scheduled to meet with the transplant team but, as his wife Omeka explains, things didn't go as planned.

"He was not feeling well at all; he had a fever and was vomiting," she says. "We came into town the night before due to the appointment early the next morning, and I took him straight to the hospital. That's when he tested positive for COVID."

Marcus spent eight days hospitalized at MUSC. Though he recovered from COVID, it complicated his disease and he began dialysis immediately. For the next nine months, his life changed dramatically: he'd have to receive dialysis for four hours at a time three days a week. In the meantime, the search for a donor began. Omeka stepped forward to offer hers.

"It's almost like if your child is in the pool and they can't swim, you don't initially think you can't swim — you just jump in to save the child, you know?" she explains. "With him, it wasn't really a thought of if I should do it. It's, 'I'm going to try and do whatever needs to be done to be able to do it.'"

An MUSC patient in a hospital bed speaking with care team members.

Omeka wasn't a match, but, like Traci, was on board to donate to anyone if it meant saving her husband. She matched with the recipient at the other center. By June, they received word that MUSC had matched Marcus with a donor (Traci), and so the chain continued.

When Marcus received the news, he was overcome with relief. "Relief of ending dialysis," he says, exhausted at the mere memory of dialysis. "Being 41 and having to dedicate 12 hours a week to a dialysis machine, and you have a family to take care of, responsibilities and so forth — but the dialysis is draining you. It was just a physical toll on my body."

Marcus and Omeka couldn't have done it all without the support of family. Their kids — Isaiah, now a 20-year-old junior at the College of Charleston, and Destiny, now 19 and a freshman at Duke University — happened to be on school breaks during the July surgeries, so they were able to be very involved in the healing process.

In fact, Isaiah came to his mother with a special message that he wrote on her kidney pillow: "This just shows how family should be and how strong our family is as a unit."

Omeka says that as a couple, they've never hidden anything from their kids. They've seen every struggle and they've seen them rise above everything. "I think that in this particular moment in our life — these last two and a half years from November 12, 2018 until now — they've also seen how we're not just married and it's a piece of paper that we hold, but that we're literally here for each other," she says. "I told Isaiah, you're exactly right — we are a strong family unit. We're supposed to be there for the ones that we love."

A Great Feeling: Regina and Gerald's story

Regina Smith also knows a thing or two about the sacrifice a wife would make for her husband.

Regina, a 54-year-old USPS carrier, moved to Simpsonville from Pennsylvania in 2012, the same year she and Gerald Smith, a 59-year-old retired USPS carrier, got married. Up until that time, Gerald knew he had chronic kidney disease, but didn't realize how serious it could really get. Regina's entrance into his life changed all of that.

In 2015, they began the journey together to get Gerald's health back on track. Gerald began seeing a urologist, who recommended he get on a kidney transplant list. The road ahead made him feel down, but he knew what he had to do.

"Whatever had to come next, I knew I just had to deal with it the best I could," he says.

Knowing he'd need a donor, Regina wondered, 'Why not me?' And so she began the process of becoming a donor. When she was not a match for her husband, she was undeterred; the couple welcomed the opportunity to join a living donor chain at MUSC.

When they got the call that they'd been matched — she with Traci's intended, anonymous recipient and he with a donor from another center — they were thrilled. "I was so happy," Regina says. "To be able to save my husband's life for one was amazing, but to also be able to help another family - it's a great feeling."

Like Marcus, a hiccup to Gerald's healing arrived in the form of COVID-19. In May, just weeks before the July surgeries, Gerald was hospitalized for 14 days, a scary event during an already anxious time for both him and Regina. Thankfully, he was able to overcome the virus and the surgeries would go on as planned. At last, Gerald has returned to good health.

Gerald credits his care team at MUSC for his health but, of course, he owes it all to someone in particular. "I could not have done this without my wife," he says.

As for Regina, she hopes anyone reading this is inspired to become a living donor. "If you have the opportunity to give, do it," she says. "If I could do it over again, I wouldn't hesitate."

She's also glad that this chain will remain connected forever, in more ways than one. Regina stays in touch with her recipient's wife, whose advice to her is this: "What you can do is what you're doing, standing by your husband to take care of him, just as I'm doing."

More (Emotional) Miracles to Come

Though patients like Traci, Omeka, Marcus, Regina and Gerald have been through a rollercoaster of emotions during their transplant experiences, it's safe to say that they're not the only ones. MUSC Health transplant nephrologist Dr. Karim Soliman says the care team's hearts are in it, too.

An MUSC patient watches a video on a phone with his family and care team members.

"We are all passionate about our work and dedicated to providing our patients with the best possible care," he says. "It can be an emotional journey and we really get to develop those one-on-one relationships with our patients. It's very rewarding work."

MUSC Health's Kidney Transplant Program looks forward to further donations possible through both partnerships with the APKD as well as many more generous living donations from the community. As always, the focus is on the patients.

"We aim to transplant safely, effectively and quickly to provide our patients with the best possible outcomes," says MUSC Health transplant nephrologist, Dr. Michael Casey. "Living donation provides another avenue for organ recipients that can help shorten time on the waitlist as well as having great results. It's awe inspiring to see members of the community step up to help those in need and see the bond that's created through this shared experience."

Learn more about the MUSC Health Living Donor Program