Loyola's 'Seven Sisters' save lives with their kidney donations

October 15, 2013


One wanted to help a casual acquaintance. Another wanted to honor her late father. A third hoped to spare a young family the suffering she saw her aunt and niece endure.

In this 2009 photo, kidney donor Barbara Thomas visits with organ recipient James Love and Dr. David Holt the day after Love received Thomas' kidney in a transplant surgery at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. Thomas is one of seven Loyola employees to donate a kidney to a non-related recipient.

Whatever their motivations, seven altruistic women who work or recently worked for Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago have opted over the past several years to donate kidneys to non-relatives in the hopes of giving someone — most often a complete stranger — a second chance to have a healthy life.

According to David Bosch, a spokesman for Gift of Hope, which coordinates organ and tissue donations for northern Illinois and northwest Indiana, the living donations of the so-called "Seven Sisters of Loyola" are most likely a first for the nation, as far as the number of employees from a single company donating kidneys to nonfamily members.

"I can't say for certain, but without a doubt, I can say that it's amazing that Loyola would have seven people who … have that kind of caring, concern and compassion for people who are suffering and waiting for an organ transplant," Bosch remarked at an event honoring the women.

Yet many of the donors say they were surprised by the accolades and media attention they've received for their kidney donations. "It just felt like the right thing to do," says Barbara Thomas, 50, now administrative coordinator of Loyola's living donor kidney transplant program.

That sentiment is shared by Thomas' six "sisters" — Dr. Susan Hou, Cristina Lamb, Jodi Tamen, Dorothy Jambrosek, Jane Thomas and Cynthia Blakemore.

"Perhaps it's part of the culture of working for a Catholic institution with an emphasis on having a sense of responsibility for others," says Blakemore, 61, the medical center's clinical lab manager. Indeed, by pledging to uphold Loyola's Magis values — a promise exemplified by doing more for others to glorify God — employees commit themselves to providing the highest level of "care, concern, respect and cooperation" in all areas of patient care.

Leading the way

Hou, 67, past medical and surgical director of Loyola's renal transplant program, may have started the chain reaction by donating a kidney to her patient Hermelinda Gutierrez, in 2002. Hou said the decision was a moral, as well as a practical, one.

"I believe in the brotherhood of man—there are no unrelated people," she says.

"I also know that more than 110,000 people nationwide are on waiting lists for organ transplants, mainly kidneys, from deceased donors and many die before organs become available. In Chicago, the wait is generally 4 to 6 years," says Hou. "And the problem is getting worse. As the rate of diabetes climbs, the amount of kidney failures increases, yet the number of donors is not rising as well.

"It's also scientific fact that kidneys from living donors are preferable to kidneys from cadavers. At Loyola, our success rate with patients who receive kidneys from living donors is 72 percent at 10 years versus 62 percent with deceased donors," she adds.

Hou says she'd long thought about being a kidney donor. "One of my medical school friends had kidney failure in 1974, and I considered donating then, before he found out that his brother was a perfect match. So I waited — a very long time," she says.

"When this patient — one of three earthlings smaller than me — came for evaluation and I realized we were compatible, I didn't hesitate," says Hou, who is 4 feet 10 inches tall. (Although height generally doesn't matter in donations when donor and recipient are both of average size, it wouldn't be ideal for a very petite individual to be a football player's donor, Hou explains.)

The fact that Hou returned to work relatively quickly after surgery, she suspects, made the idea of donation "less scary" for coworkers.

"Though this is still considered major surgery, the fact that people recover more rapidly now … may motivate more living donors," she says. Donors can recover from the laparoscopic extraction of a kidney in days, whereas it once required weeks to recover from an open-abdomen procedure, she explains. "Of course, beyond blood and tissue matching, we still make sure that donors truly want to be donors. We don't want them to feel pressured to donate. We also need to be certain that they are healthy enough to get through surgery safely, and that they will be fine with one kidney for the rest of their life. If a donor is 30 years old, we want that single kidney to last at least another 50 years."

Blakemore, for one, was surprised at how quickly she returned to normal life after her donation in 2010. "I was home in two days and back to work in two weeks, though it did take a while to get back to my regular workouts," she says.

Pay it forward

Blakemore says her donation was prompted by a program she attended featuring Dr. John Milner, program director of living donors at Loyola.

"That's where I learned about the 'Pay It Forward' program, which creates organ matches through chains of donors," she says. "I didn't hesitate to sign up for it; it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for me to pay back everyone who had helped my father, who spent the last two years of his life on dialysis."

Blakemore says her father, F. Curtis Beatty, was 77 when he began dialysis and suffered from congestive heart as well as kidney failure. "Unfortunately, he was not a candidate for organ donation, and I saw firsthand how debilitating dialysis could be. My parents had to schedule their lives around spending four to five hours a day, three days a week, with my dad hooked up to a machine," she says. "I wanted to spare another family that kind of experience."

Loyola, she adds, made the commitment easy. "It's a very time-consuming process, between the pretesting, the blood work, meeting with social workers and psychiatrists, and so on. But Loyola made it easy for me to schedule everything around my work day, and a grant took care of the cost," she says.

Though Blakemore knows her recipient's name and hometown, she chose not to return his offer to be contacted one year after she donated her kidney.

"I didn't want him to feel any kind of obligation," she explains. "I'm just happy he is doing well."

She is, however, eager to spread the word about the kidney donation program. "My license plate now reads 'PA FWD,' and I'm happy to share my experience with anyone who asks about it."

Jane Thomas, 50, a registered nurse and lung transplant coordinator at Loyola who also donated a kidney in 2010, explains the phenomenon of the "Seven Sisters" this way: "People working in health care seem to have an inherent need to help others."

Like Hou and Blakemore, she says the idea of donating a kidney had been "in the back of my head for some time.

"My first job was at OSF Saint Francis in Peoria on the urology/nephrology unit, where I took care of patients with varying degrees of renal insufficiency and a small population of posttransplant patients," she says.

Kidney failure touched her family too. "My aunt died at 51 of end-stage renal failure after several years of dialysis and a kidney transplant that lasted four years," she adds. "I wanted to spare a family the untimely loss of their loved one and release someone from the confinements of dialysis."

Unlike Blakemore, Jane Thomas did end up meeting her recipient, Aaron Green of Bellwood, Ill., shortly before Christmas in 2010. "He was a young man, 38, and a father of four who was happy to be there for his wife and children," she recalls. "I have no regrets; I just have good feelings about having done what I did."

Barbara Thomas, on the other hand, had known her recipient — James Love, now in his late 30s and the father of five — for years when she donated a kidney to him in 2009. Her youngest son, Andrew, 19, and his oldest boy, James, 19, had been childhood friends in Sleepy Hollow, Ill.

"I was aware of the fact that James had been in and out of the hospital as the boys were growing up, but I didn't know why," says Barbara Thomas. "It wasn't until the Loves rented my house from me when the kids were in high school that I found out that James suffered from sickle-cell
anemia, which caused high blood pressure and resulted in kidney failure."

In a conversation with Love's wife, Barbara Thomas discovered she and James Love shared the same blood type; she offered to undergo tests to see if she could be his match. It turned out the two were completely compatible. "I'm your donor!" she told him.

"I had mixed feelings of joy and shock," recalls Love. "I had been on dialysis for three years and unable to work. I was on a transplant list, but I knew it could take years to find a kidney. And here was this person I knew only casually who was willing to go under the knife to donate a body part to me."

As for the surgery, Thomas says she never doubted it would be successful. The hardest part, she admits, was not having paid sick leave during her recuperation (she previously was employed at a law office). That's why, now that she's working at Loyola, she has begun the Heal With Love Foundation, named in James Love's honor, to offer monetary support when needed post-surgery for other donors. The foundation raises money through private fundraisers.

Though the Loves have since relocated to the Dallas area, the two families are still in close touch. And James Love is now studying to be a nurse.

"I thank God every day for the chance to go out and toss a ball with my son, or sit and talk with my daughter, and be able to do homework with them," Love says. "That stuff is priceless, and Barbara gave it all back to me. I love her tremendously and honor and respect her with the highest regard."

As for Barbara Thomas, she says, "I don't want to ever have a regret that I could have helped someone but didn't."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.