Advance with MUSC Health

“If I could grow another kidney to give, I would.” Radio program about kidney donation inspires man to donate,changing four lives

Advance With MUSC Health
June 27, 2024
Four people stand in a hospital waiting room, some with IVs attached. They are holding plush pillows shaped like kidneys with the MUSC Health logo printed on them.

Four lives were changed forever the day Ryan Register tuned in to a National Public Radio (NPR) radio show that featured guest Al Roth. Roth won a Nobel Prize for his work in matching theory, including creating an algorithm that matches kidney donors with recipients.

As he listened to the radio, Ryan says he learned something he didn’t know: anybody can donate an organ, even if they aren’t connected to a family member of the person who needs the kidney. The on-air conversation detailed the incredible need for kidney donations.

He said, “I realized there are people who need a kidney and are surrounded by an ocean of kidneys. It’s a travesty.”

It was simple for Ryan, an active military member stationed on Parris Island, SC: “The community is in such need!”

“It just felt like it was the right thing to do,” he said. Within days, he had the clear from his family. “‘What if one of our kids needs it?’ my wife asked, and together we concluded a) it was very unlikely, b) my wife could donate, and c) if I became a donor, we’d be in good standing.’ There are so many people who want to have their quality of life back. It was within my ability.”

This type of donor is called a Good Samaritan, or altruistic non-directed donor. Ryan called the MUSC Health Living Donor Program to start the process and was quickly connected to Haley Fitzsimmons, MUSC Living Donor Nurse Coordinator.

In doing so, Ryan set off a four-person living donor transplant chain. A living donor chain begins when a Good Samaritan donates out of the goodness of their heart. Their kidney recipient is someone who had a willing but incompatible donor, usually a friend or a family member. That donor then volunteers to give to someone else.

To prepare, Ryan did a lot of reading and connecting via message boards and support groups. “There is a wealth of info on the internet, including living donor communities and online spaces with others you can reach out to and connect with, to be reassured if you’re nervous,” said Ryan. “I was scared and nervous, but the benefit to people who need it is so huge.”

David Sullivan, 43, of Loris, SC, was one of those people. A construction contractor, he had lived with hypertension since he was 17 years old. “It has been an ongoing problem my whole life,” he said. Still, he was what he calls “wide-open,” able to work long hours and be an active and involved dad who coached his son’s and daughter’s T-ball teams.

Then suddenly, without warning, David’s high blood pressure caused his kidneys to give out. “They couldn’t function,” he recalled. He spent a month in the hospital and two years on dialysis, getting some quality of life back with home dialysis five days a week.

“People kept telling me to post my need for a kidney on social media, but I didn’t say anything to anybody, I never asked anybody,” said David in his soft-spoken manner. “I’m a very private person, and it was a burden I didn’t want to put on anybody else.” The waiting “felt like a lifetime.”

Family friend and former neighbor Meagan Eisenhardt, 40, learned what happened and what David was going through. “When I found out David was so sick, on dialysis every day, something was weighing on me,” Meagan said. The families were close, their sons playing baseball together with David as their coach, and their two daughters also the same age and nearly inseparable. “My heart broke, and I knew it wasn’t fair to the kids to grow up without their dad.”

Meagan was not a match for David, but she was willing to help someone else in need, becoming part of the life-saving chain Ryan set in motion.

Ryan’s kidney went to David, and Meagan’s kidney went to someone on the list who didn’t have a donor associated with her, and who would not have received a kidney otherwise.

Deneice Johnson, 55, received Meagan’s kidney after waiting four years on dialysis due to genetic hypertension.

“It’s not as difficult a process or surgery as people would think,” said Meagan, a registered nurse. “MUSC made it all so easy. They explained everything in detail, made everything so much better for me and my family, helping with the transition back to work, too. The first couple weeks of recovery were rough, but MUSC had explained it wouldn’t be overnight, that I would be hurting. Nothing happened that I didn’t expect. Now I’m back to work and feel like nothing even happened. I’m completely back to normal. It’s crazy.”

Ryan agrees: “The anticipation was worse than the procedure itself,” he admits. “I’ve been amazed at how quick and easy my recovery has been, at how not bad the pain was. I feel great!”

Ryan was back at work within a few weeks and looking forward to restarting his exercise routine in a week or two.

The four met the day after the transplants and have shared an active text trail of messages between them as they’ve checked on each other’s recovery and wellbeing.

“You don’t ever share a thing like that with another person,” said Ryan. “The giving of yourself and that kind of bond is very special. David told me, ‘I get to see my kids grow up.’ It’s amazing to be able to help someone in that way. It feels great to know it’s David’s kidney now and to be a part of that, to help someone have their family back. It's one of the most impactful and profound things I’ve ever done.”

David said it’s hard for him to talk about, hard to absorb. “It really takes a lot to donate a kidney to a stranger, to sign up for that,” said David. “There’s no way to say how grateful I am to Ryan and Meagan.” He gets quiet. “It’s emotional. It’s hard to take it all in. Did this really happen? I feel so grateful and blessed.”

“I get so happy and excited every time I see David now,” said Meagan. “I can already see the change, physically – he looks amazing. That lets me know I did the right thing! There were bumps along the way, but I’m so happy I did what I did. I can see the progress. A friend was in need and I did what I could do.”

And, she said, meeting Deniece and her family was a surreal moment. “That’s when you get to see firsthand the impact you’ve made on not just one person, but a whole family. That moment made it all worth it.”

“I thank God for Meagan,” said Deniece, now back at work and awaiting the OK to return to her workouts at the gym, too. “She gave me another opportunity at life.”

In a touching and humble note to the transplant medical team, Ryan wrote, “I can only imagine the skill and expertise required to do what appears to be a miracle from the outside. This has been a life-altering experience for me. That you allowed me to have a part in that for a moment is something I will be thankful for the rest of my life.”

He said he wonders how many other people are out there, walking around, not knowing that donating an organ to a stranger is a life-saving opportunity they would be happy to take part in. “I wish they could get the word out more.

“If could grow another kidney to give one again, I would. It’s an amazing experience.”

Learn more about the MUSC Transplant Center, or become a living donor.