Paying it forward: Oklahoma woman's kidney donation continues to help others
Ever since she was a child, Liz Gay wanted to donate her kidney. At 31, she donated her kidney and made medical history.
It's not easy to explain now, but at 8 years old, Liz Gay knew that she would one day donate a kidney.
Not just knew — felt called by God.
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The 31-year-old Oklahoman doesn't pretend that it's easy to explain, but her premonition set off a historical chain of events that saved lives across the globe.
“I think most people have the idea that they want the world to be a better place and that there are things in the world that need to be changed,” Gay, who lives in Woodward, said. “And to think that I got to mildly participate in something that's changing the world, that's changing countries' laws and giving people the opportunity to get these kidney transplants to potentially live when they were dying — it gets me emotional.”
Gay is what's known as an altruistic donor, a healthy person who donated a kidney without a specific person in mind as the recipient. To start the donation process, Gay went to the Alliance for Paired Donation and signed up to donate.
Once she passed through the screening and testing process, a recipient was selected, a man living across the Atlantic Ocean.
Michalis Helmis, a resident of Greece, had been on dialysis for six years. Initially, his wife, Theodora Papaioannou-Helmis, signed up to be his donor. But when doctors ran the tests, they determined she wasn't a match.
Theodora Papaioannou-Helmis spent the next two years lobbying Greek politicians to change the country's law restricting organ donation.
“The only reason I did that is I believed he could not be on dialysis for his whole life,” she said through a translator. “I just couldn't accept that, and I had to do it to get him well.”
Under Greek law, only spouses and first-degree relatives could donate kidneys to other family members. Once the law was modified, the couple flew to Ohio.
The agreement was that Gay's kidney would go to Michalis Helmis, and a few months later, Theodora Papaioannou-Helmis would come back to the states and donate her kidney to a man in Pennsylvania.
Everything worked out as planned, and a few months later, Michalis Helmis feels healthier than he has in years. He still can't believe Gay's generosity.
“I can't get it out of my head,” he said through a translator. “Every day, all day, that someone did that for me. They gave me a kidney. And now every day I think about that, constantly.”
But the story doesn't end with the Helmis family and the Pennsylvania man, Charlie Ripple, who received Theodora Papaioannou-Helmis's kidney.
Chain of donations
Because Gay was an altruistic donor, the Alliance for Paired Donation was able to start a kidney chain.
Dr. Michael Rees, the Alliance for Paired Donation chief executive officer, describes himself as “probably the biggest advocate of paired kidney donation.”
In 2007, Rees and the alliance saw its first kidney chain.
A kidney chain starts when an altruistic donor steps forward. The donor's kidney is given to a recipient. That recipient must have a donor willing to give his or her kidney to another stranger. That stranger must have a donor also willing to give a kidney to a stranger. This cycle continues, and thus, the kidney chain.
Ashford Jaggernauth has never met Gay or the Helmis family. But thanks to their donations, he was able to get a kidney from a woman in another state.
Jaggernauth, of Marietta, Ga., is the sixth person to receive a kidney in the chain Gay started. This was his second time to receive a kidney. In 1993, one of his sisters donated her kidney.
Jaggernauth suffers from Berger disease, a kidney disorder that occurs when one of the body's proteins that helps fight infections settles into the kidneys, according to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. About 25 percent of adults with Berger disease develop total kidney failure, according to the center.
In total, Jaggernauth has four kidneys inside him. When a doctor performs a kidney transplant, he or she doesn't generally remove the original kidneys.
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