Donors, recipients in 3-way transplant at Ohio State meet for first time

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a room full of heroes, only one man wore a cape on Thursday at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

It was Rob Childers, who sported the garment emblazoned with a huge letter R. His wife had it made for her so-called superhero.

And he was certainly that for Joe Kenny.

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"To be honest with you, I was in shock, because he came up and offered, and I didn’t know what to say, you know, it was just really unbelievable," Kenny said.

Childers offered to donate his kidney to Kenny after a chance meeting at last summer's Dash for Donation, presented by Lifeline of Ohio. The two only crossed paths because Kenny and his family started the race at the wrong time and had to turn back to the starting line.

That's when Childers saw the sign asking for a kidney donor who was B-positive. Kenny's wife, Judy, who is a schoolteacher, made it specifically to take to the race.

"I chased Judy down and asked her where Joe was having his work done," Childers said. "She said OSU, and to see her face light up when I said, well, I’ve got two kidneys, I’m B-positive, and I’m already in the system at OSU, it was just, it was wonderful."

It was the culmination of a process Childers started to help his wife's friend. His wife could not donate, so he jumped into the mix, offering to get tested and to donate. But when the process to help that friend fell through, Childers remained a potential donor. And eventually he matched up with Kenny to become part of the paired donation chain.

"To meet Joe, and to see how he looked, even in July, and how he looks now, it’s, it’s, I don’t know, maybe the word’s overused, but I’ll say – awesome," Childers said.

Kenny shares that sentiment. This week's kidney transplant was actually his second.

After four years of dialysis, starting back in 2010, he got his first transplant in 2014. His donor was his best friend from since high school. He happened to be a perfect match. But, two years later, the BK virus reversed the good that first kidney had done. And Kenny was back on dialysis in 2017. Then he faced a series of letdowns -- a deceased donor transplant that fell through and then two paired chain scenarios that never came to fruition.

But this week, his luck finally changed.

"All awesome people," Kenny said of his fellow recipients and donors in the group. "I mean, they’re just awesome that they would even consider doing what they’re doing, and I’m so appreciative of it."

The man who really set off the chain reaction, quite literally, is Tyler Radley.

"I think I come from a place of privilege when it comes to physical health, and really anything I can do to help other people kind of reach the same level as I’ve been blessed with, I think that’s a worthwhile thing to go into," Radley said.

He says he's been a longtime blood donor and also is on the bone marrow registry. But the gravity of this week's selfless act perhaps hasn't quite sunk in for him yet.

"Every once in a while, I become an emotional wreck over it," he said, while quickly shifting the focus to the entire group. "All the donors involved in this chain, I think, are equally giving, even if it just happens to be that they knew one of the recipients. I think it takes a certain amount of generosity, that I don’t consider myself to be more generous than any of the other ones."

The other generous donor in this mix is LaShaun Sodders.

"It’s been a very emotional roller coaster," Sodders said through tears on Thursday.

She has watched her son deal with kidney and other health problems for years.

Back in 2017, Clarence Higgins was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS. That led to kidney failure and dialysis. He needed a transplant, and his mom wanted to be his donor. But she was not a suitable match, so the two ended up in the paired transplant chain.

"Me, I’m not really the hero, I’m the hero for somebody else, but this kid has gone through so much that’s he’s actually my hero," Sodders said. "He’s my hero for giving me the courage to still follow through ‘cause I’m a wimp, haha. I don’t like needles, I don’t like blood draws, but seeing everything that he’s gone through, and knowing that I could help somebody else, I couldn’t imagine not being able to, so all those fears had to go away because their stories are so much bigger than me being afraid of a needle or anything like that."

The road was bumpy for this pair as well, however. The two were chosen for two chains that never happened. But the third time was the charm.

"She said that I was her hero, but that can’t be possible," Higgins said. "It can’t be possible. I look up to her more than anything in the world, man."

The generosity exhibited by living donors and the gratitude displayed by recipients inspire the transplant team.

Dr. Amer Rajab has been with OSU Wexner Medical Center since 1999. He's performed hundreds of transplants during the past two decades and was part of the teams performing this week's transplants.

"Our work is very stressful, and it’s very hard," Dr. Rajab said. "I was up until 1 a.m. this morning doing a transplant, but literally when I come in the morning and meet the recipient and see how much it change their life. Transplant makes them back normal, dialysis keeps them alive but never normal, transplant gives them new life. When I see they’re feeling, really I tell them, you already gave me a new cup of coffee. I’m ready to go again."

So far, all six patients involved in this week's transplants are doing well. And they share a new, lifelong bond.

"Everybody in here, families were affected for the rest of their lives because of a decision that donors made to save lives of three individuals, and when I mean save lives, I mean save lives," Higgins said.

To find out more about kidney donation, click here.