Living donors, recipients celebrate everlasting bond

August 27, 2020
a woman in a hospital gown with IVs in her hands cries and hugs another woman
Kidney recipient Adwoa Cox hugs donor Mandy DiDonato. Photos by Emma Vought

The bell on the sixth floor of University Hospital clanged again and again as three people celebrated their new kidneys and the strangers who made their transplants possible.

Tears, laughter, prayer and new friends marked Aug. 20, the day after six surgeries at MUSC Health in Charleston – three people came out with one less kidney and three with gently used kidneys that will let them live their lives again.

“She’s my superhero. What do you say to someone?” said recipient Glenn Ladines, 57, of Anderson, South Carolina, about Mandy DiDonato, 44, of Townville, who came forward to donate to him. Their sons play baseball together.

Though DiDonato intended to donate to Ladines, she wasn’t a match. Donors and recipients must meet multiple criteria, including compatible blood types and compatible immune systems. Other factors, such as age and size difference between donor and recipient, are also taken into consideration when determining the best match for a kidney transplant.

For roughly a decade, MUSC Health relied on an external organization, the National Kidney Registry, to facilitate surgeries when patients had a willing donor who wasn't compatible. Almost three years ago, MUSC Health launched an internal kidney paired donation program. Initially, living donor coordinator Monica Przybylek, R.N., figured out such matches manually, using spreadsheets and a whiteboard in her office. Now, the team uses a software program, MatchGrid, to figure out matches. The system constantly updates as people rotate on and off the list.

“MatchGrid is constantly evolving. It's very organic. It's almost like Christmas, every time we hit the button,” she said.

In this instance, the software created a three-pair match. DiDonato’s kidney went to Adwoa Cox, 44, of Greenville. Cox’s daughter, Amani Cox, 27, had volunteered to donate to her mom, but because the mother-daughter pair didn’t match, Amani’s kidney went to Alexis Cook, 23, of Boiling Springs. Kristin Hayes, 41, also of Boiling Springs, had volunteered to donate to Cook, but because they weren’t a match, her kidney went to Ladines.

a man and woman embrace beneath a bell on the wall that is rung when people get a transplant 
Recipient Glenn Ladines hugs donor Kristin Hayes.

a woman sticks a leaf with her name on artwork of a tree that features the names of donors and recipients  
Donor Mandy DiDonato adds her name to the "Gift of Life" artwork.
group photo of kidney donors, recipients and family members 
 From left: Jason Hayes, Kristin Hayes, Glenn Ladines, Kim Ladines, Gage Jackson (standing), Sonya Cook (kneeling), Amani Cox (standing), Alexis Cook, Mandy DiDonato, Adwoa Cox and Charles Cox.

Hayes didn’t know Alexis Cook when she saw a Facebook post from Sonya Cook asking if anyone would donate a kidney to her daughter. Something about the post moved her, and she immediately volunteered. Though she wasn’t a match, she didn’t stop there.

“I told them at the beginning I was with them through the end of this, to get her a kidney,” she said.

Alexis Cook became ill with kidney disease at only 12 years old. At one point, she was on dialysis, but then her kidney function improved on its own. It worsened again after she gave birth to her daughter two years ago, and she was placed on the transplant waiting list. She was thrilled when she learned a match had been found for her.

“It was amazing. I was excited. I didn’t think it would come that fast,” she said.

Przybylek said the internal and external living kidney donor programs each have their unique strengths. Because MUSC Health serves South Carolinians, it seeks first to ensure that patients here get the kidneys they need.

“Our primary focus will always be to transplant our people with our donors and to get as many people off our wait list as possible,” she said.

Some patients, however, are especially difficult to match. In that case, it's helpful to have access to a larger pool of potential donors.

“We don’t want to limit the options, particularly for our hard-to-match recipients. If we only had an internal exchange, we would be doing them harm,” Przybylek said.

It can take time to find the right match, even if you’ve got junior high school buddies in Florida who are willing to drive up to South Carolina to get tested, as Ladines did. Ladines said he has been humbled by the outpouring of support.

“It has softened me in a way I never would have expected. People are willing to do something like that for you? This is not like, ‘Let me borrow a cup of sugar,’” he said.

two young women together pull the cord on a bell attached to the wall to ring it 
Recipient Alexis Cook, left, and donor Amani Cox ring the bell.
people in a hospital treatment room hold hands in a circle and pray 
Glenn Ladines leads the donor and recipient families in prayer after the entire group met for the first time.

Ladines’ kidneys have slowly been worsening for the past six years. The man who coaches baseball and basketball and leads small prayer groups, in addition to work, has been on dialysis for nine hours a day for more than a year.

“You can only squeeze so much in before you have to get on your machine,” he said. “I’m not that guy to just sit around, but I did that for 15 months.”

Now, he’s ready to go home and praise God.

“There’s a power here much bigger than us,” he said.

About the Author

Leslie Cantu

Keywords: Features