After A Student's Dad Needed A Kidney, These Teachers Started A Donation Chain

This donation chain ended up saving eight lives.

Neil Emmott, a 56-year-old husband and father of two from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., learned he had polycystic kidney disease (PKD) in 2001. Because the disease progresses over time, Emmott had no choice but to routinely monitor kidney function and adopt a healthy lifestyle. However, despite these continued efforts, Emmott made his private battle public in 2016 when doctors told him he'd need a kidney transplant to survive.

"The diagnosis was a surprise because no one in my family had PKD," Neil told Johns Hopkins Medicine. "At that point, and for the first several years, my kidney function was high and I had no symptoms. I wasn't going to worry until I needed to."

But when his kidney function dropped below 20 percent, Neil and his family knew they'd have to turn to outside help if he was going to beat the disease and live a healthy, normal life.

"Asking for a kidney was unchartered territory for us, and my husband is extremely private," Neil's wife, Lisa, wrote on the PKD Foundation website. "Once I convinced him to break free from being a hostage to privacy, though, we were floored by the goodwill that came our way. An abundance of potential donors, ranging from close friends to total strangers on four continents, enrolled at his transplant center to donate a kidney to him."

Lisa first confided in those with whom she worked at Ft. Lauderdale's Bethany Christian School — the school where Mackenzie, the couple's youngest daughter, attended first grade. This month, Lisa told TODAY Parents that she initially opened up to her daughter's teacher, Allison Malouf, about Neil's need for a new kidney because she knew that Malouf's husband Jason had donated a kidney eight years before.

"I also needed to share the mammoth weight that was bearing down on my shoulders," Lisa said.

"When you are a teacher, you feel like a part of these children's lives. Their daughter was like a child of my own. I didn't want to see her without a dad ... God gives you two kidneys, but you only need one," Malouf told TODAY Parents. "I had complete peace and a strong desire to donate," she added. "Being their daughter's teacher, I desperately wanted to help this wonderful family."

In the meantime, Lisa also told another close friend, Britani Atkinson, a nursery school teacher, about the struggles her family was facing. As she told The Epoch Times, Lisa remembers saying, "[The reason] why I haven't been returning your calls, why I haven't been a good friend, it's because I'm dealing with finding Neil a kidney."

"Privacy has an expiration date," Lisa told Johns Hopkins Medicine. "A conversation can save a life. You have to raise awareness and cast a wide net. People who want to help will rise to the occasion."

And rise, she did. Without telling Lisa or Neil, Atkinson secretly underwent private testing to determine if she'd be a viable donor, much like Malouf. Once she was approved, Atkinson surprised Lisa by leaving a note on her car.

"I read the card, which was beautiful, and I literally buckled. I've never lost control of my gross motor skills, but I could not stand as I was reading her letter," Lisa said.

"I knew how desperate I would be if I found myself in their situation, and the solution seemed so easy," Atkinson told TODAY. "I had two kidneys and I only needed one. If I could give one to Neil to keep their family whole, why would I not?"

Although neither Malouf nor Atkinson ended up donating their kidneys directly to Neil — Malouf's blood type didn't match and Atkinson's kidney was too small — both women registered with the National Kidney Registry on Neil's behalf, which ultimately started a chain that saved eight people in the process. 

TODAY explains that incompatible donors and patients put their names on the registry's exchange list with other incompatible donor-patient pairs from all over the country. When the registry finds an even number of compatible pairs of donors and patients, they ultimately set up a "chain" in which the donors and patients evenly exchange kidneys, thereby saving multiple lives at once. Atkinson and Neil, for instance, underwent surgery in September 2017 as part of a chain that saved four patients, including Neil, and Malouf underwent surgery in November 2017 as part of a chain that saved another four patients.

As John Hopkins Medicine notes, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which manages the list of everyone across the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant, more than 95,000 people are currently on the waiting list for a deceased-donor kidney. They're facing at least an average three- to five-year wait, while they depend on a dialysis machine three times a week to do the work their kidneys no longer can.

Obtaining a kidney from a living donor can shorten that wait. However, the number of people volunteering to donate a kidney rarely meets the demand. In 2017 — the year in which this donation chain saved eight lives — 5,811 people received a kidney from a living donor, saving only 20 percent of those waiting for one. As Lisa said, "help is right outside of your comfort zone."

"One very private man needed a kidney and didn't want to ask a single soul, but because Neil opened up to going public, eight people have now received new kidneys thanks to the paired exchange program," she said. "If you also consider those waiting for a kidney on the deceased donor list, there are also now eight people who will "move up" on the list and receive a new kidney sooner."

Ultimately, as Lisa told TODAY, she's grateful to have two people in her life who were so eager and willing give her family the gift of life. "If life is a classroom, Britani and Allison wrote the lesson plans," she said. "Mankind should sharpen their pencils and take notes."

Cover image via David Tadevosian / Shutterstock

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