Advance with MUSC Health

Thanks to Facebook, MUSC Resident Physician Receives Kidney from a Former High School Classmate

Advance With MUSC Health
April 08, 2022
Dr. Cordy McGill-Scarlett hugging Samantha Henderson

Dr. Cordy McGill-Scarlett moved to Charleston two years ago for MUSC’s General Psychiatry residency program — and because the Lowcountry simply seemed like a great place to live. He didn’t realize how soon he would become a patient himself in need of a kidney transplant. And he could have never guessed that it would be an old high school classmate who’d come to his rescue.

McGill-Scarlett grew up in Suwanee, Ga. In the 8th grade, he was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your own tissues and organs, which can potentially affect the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.

By the time McGill-Scarlett’s junior year arrived, his parents decided he should move in with his aunt and uncle and finish high school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. “That was around the time the economy and housing market were going down,” he says. “My dad lost his job and my mom was a real estate agent, so they weren’t really in the best situation financially. My aunt and uncle blessed me with housing and helped to take care of me.”

During his senior year, McGill-Scarlett experienced acute kidney failure and ended up in the hospital, where he spent his 18th birthday. After a two-month stay complete with beginning a dialysis regimen, he returned to his parents in Georgia for Cytoxan — a chemotherapy drug — treatment and more dialysis. “Miraculously, I overcame that situation, came off of dialysis, went back down to Florida, and was able to continue living a normal teenager’s life, like going to the prom,” he says. “And I somehow graduated on time after being out of school for so long.”

It was in high school that he was told that within a decade or so he would need a new kidney. Being a teenager with other things to think about, the full gravity of the news didn’t really hit him at that time. He had gotten well and wanted to move on, go after his dream of becoming a psychiatrist.

Dr. Cordy McGill-Scarlett with Samantha Henderson

In 2010, McGill-Scarlett began his academic career at Florida State University, where he attended undergraduate school, got his master’s degree, and went to medical school. “Surprisingly, everything always seemed to work out,” he says. “I think if you have your mind set positively and just continue doing what you have to do, it seems like things do have a tendency to work out, even though there are obstacles that you're faced with.”

In medical school, he tried to be proactive with his condition, going on peritoneal dialysis which can be done at home with no assistance. He was able to work with no complications, but unfortunately developed peritonitis, inflammation of the peritoneum. His body went into toxic renal failure. He couldn’t tolerate food so he had to go back onto hemodialysis, a more involved form of dialysis requiring visits to a clinic or a dialysis partner to help with it at home.

“I hated having to do hemodialysis while working — it was not easy,” he says. “That definitely took a toll on my mental health, because I had been proactive and tried to avoid all of this, but it still happened.”

By 2018, his kidneys started to fail again and he began the process of getting listed for transplant. Many family members were ineligible for donation due to medical conditions. So, he waited.

Meanwhile, McGill-Scarlett graduated from medical school and, in 2020, moved to Charleston for his residency at MUSC in the midst of the novel coronavirus outbreak. It was difficult to move to a new place while in constant isolation, unable to meet new people, but he focused on his work and health. He also embraced his proximity to MUSC Health’s Transplant Center and its Living Donor Program, which offers patients in need an alternative to waiting for a deceased donor organ to become available.

After seeing so many try without success to be his perfect match, McGill-Scarlett finally worked up the courage to take his big ask to social media: it was time to do the hard thing of asking anyone and everyone for a kidney. So he did, and his post got shared. A lot. One serendipitous share was from a friend, who posted the kidney plea on their high school alumni Facebook page.

As it was one of many shares, it was soon forgotten, and McGill-Scarlett went back to being a busy resident.

In 2021, he was in the emergency room doing an assessment for the psychiatric department when he got some good news: a match had been found. When the transplant coordinator shared the name of his donor, a Gwinnett High School classmate from Suwanee, he drew a blank.

“I didn't remember her name,” he says. “We didn't actually know each other in high school. I felt bad,” he says. “I felt embarrassed almost, but ultimately, she didn't know me either.”

Dr. Cordy McGill-Scarlett between his parents. Everyone is smiling.

Samantha Henderson, a lead pharmacy technician at Walgreens, was scrolling through Facebook one day when she came across a post that caught her eye. It was really an unexplainable feeling in her gut that made her respond to that post.

“When I saw that post, I just felt like I had to try,” she says. “I am sitting here with two kidneys and the doctors say I can live with one. But he can’t live with zero, and he’s going to do great things. How could I not? How could I sit here and not try to help?”’

Henderson had a lot going on in 2021 herself. In the midst of deciding to donate her kidney, she was also in the process of adopting her five-year-old daughter. After some adoption-related delays, Henderson was able to complete the required living donor testing and soon found out she was a match.

Though the two didn’t know each other before, that all changed. The day after the news had been delivered, they began talking on the phone and have kept in touch ever since. “So this whole thing has also given me a really good friend,” she says.

In losing a kidney, she gained a lot and, if given the chance, would do the same again. “Everybody at MUSC was so sweet throughout the entire process,” she says. “If I could do it again through this program, I would. I've had such a good experience.”

As for McGill-Scarlett, he’s loving life after dialysis. The weight of doing dialysis three days a week for four hours a day was almost like working two jobs, he says; his body was exhausted. And after so many complications in the last year of dialysis, he felt continuously defeated.

That’s why he’s also examining life after dialysis.

“I remained positive but you definitely have your days when you’re more withdrawn and slipping into a deeply depressed state — and that’s probably not uncommon. So that’s something I want to look at, given my background in psychiatry: maybe working with patients on dialysis.”

As for Henderson, she’s back to being an energetic mom, showing her daughter how to ride a bike and taking her to the park. “After a month of not being very active, it’s just really good to be back to mom life, because it’s just me and her,” she says. “So it’s good to be able to play and run and have fun together again.”

On August 25, her daughter’s adoption was finalized. That was one day before Henderson’s birthday and one week before transplant surgery. In those seven days, she had a lot to celebrate — namely, helping two people who really needed her.

“I've always wanted to help people,” she says. “There aren’t too many opportunities where you can freely give something like that, and you'll be OK. While giving a kidney is a very big thing, it was something that I could freely give and feel good doing that myself.”

Her advice to anyone considering living donation? She won’t downplay it. It was a big deal for her. “But it’s not super hard,” she says. “If that’s where your heart is leading you, you should definitely do it because it’s very rewarding. You can really change someone’s life — this is your opportunity to really make a difference.