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Fion McDonald speaks about his kidney transplant at last week’s Donate Life event while donor Bruce Estes looks on. (photo by Joe Howell)

Event highlights the strong bonds organ donation creates

BY: JESSICA PASLEY

4/07/2011 - Three weeks before her son's scheduled kidney transplant, Melody McDonald received a heart wrenching text message: the surgery is off.

She was uncertain how she and her husband would break the news to their son, Fion, who had been eagerly awaiting Dec. 8, 2009. The past five years had been harrowing for them all.

In 2004 Fion underwent his first kidney transplant after experiencing renal failure due to a rare condition called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), which leads to scarring of the kidneys. But two weeks later, he was placed on dialysis. It was a regime he would undergo three times a week until another kidney could be found.

Although Fion had a willing donor, she was not compatible. The family agreed to participate in a paired kidney exchange, which offers an alternative to deceased-donor transplants for kidney recipients and donor pairs who are not compatible. With a paired kidney exchange or swap, organs can be exchanged between two compatible pairs, creating a chain of kidney transplants.

But that delicate balance was disrupted when one of the recipients received a cadaver kidney. Organizers at the Vanderbilt Transplant Center feared the transplant would be called off.

Thankfully, the intended donor for Fion was a man of honor.

“When my friend received a cadaver kidney, I decided that weekend that I was going to go through with the transplant,” said Rob Estes. “I set out to help. I am a man of my word.

“We knew that a 19-year-old young man needed a kidney. We have four kids. It could have been one of ours in need. I would hope that a total stranger would do the same for us.”

“I am so gracious to him (Estes),” said McDonald. “He gave me a new life. It has been a really tough struggle.

“The day my dad told me that the transplant was off, I was devastated. I turned to my parents, who helped cheer me up. And I just prayed.”

About 30 minutes after the first communication about the transplant, a phone call followed.

“It was a day of highs and lows,” recalled Fion's mother. “They called us back and said everything was all good. The transplant was still on.”

Although the transplant gave McDonald a new lease on life, it accomplished much more than that. Since his transplant, McDonald became the first great grandchild in his family to receive his college degree.

His success has inspired his cousins and brother to attend college.
Estes and McDonald, along with nearly 300 people, attended the annual Gift of Life Celebration on March 30 at the University Club at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

April is national Donate Life Month. Prior to the celebration, Vanderbilt held a flag-raising ceremony as part of the national awareness program, Flags Across America. The event is designed to mobilize the national transplant community to educate the public on the need for organ, eye and tissue donation.

Vanderbilt honored the donors, recipients, families and medical teams who provide care for these patients during the celebration.

Since 2008, there have been 308 donors at Vanderbilt — 162 living donors and 144 deceased donors, whose gifts accounted for 671 transplants.

Both McDonald and Estes encouraged others to take the time to register online at www.tndonorregistry.org.

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