16 patients part of largest internal kidney donation swap in Cleveland Clinic history

8 people receive a kidney, including a Medina woman, saved by a complete stranger

16 patients part of largest internal kidney donation swap in Cleveland Clinic history

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - There’s new hope for transplant patients after a major surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.

Right now, more than 112,000 Americans are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant. That’s nearly enough to fill every seat in FirstEnergy Stadium--twice.

But a local woman received that lifesaving gift from a complete stranger, through a surgery that promises hope for so many others.

“Uncontrolled diabetes, stress, tension,” Sue Wilson describes what led to her stage four kidney disease diagnosis in 2015.

“My granddaughter told me, she wanted her fun grandma back,” and at that very moment, Sue knew, for her 6-year-old granddaughter, Rory, she had to get her health back on track. Sue changed her diet, exercised, and lost weight, but despite all that, she needed a kidney.

“My daughter was willing to donate, but she wasn’t a match,” explains Sue.

Sue’s husband of 39 years started to fear the worst.

“I was very worried {...} that she wouldn’t get a match in time," says Ron Wilson, while fighting back tears.

But doctors at the Cleveland Clinic were working on a bit of a kidney donation puzzle and Sue might just fit in.

It’s called a kidney transplant chain. Instead of simply having one living donor that matches with one recipient, doctors were taking 16 people and swapping incompatible donors with compatible ones. Ultimately doctors would then re-match the chain, so eight people would receive a kidney.

The surgery would be the largest internal kidney transplant chain ever done at the Cleveland Clinic.

But the key rested in the hands of a complete stranger, explains Dr. Alvin Wee.

Meet John Zakel: he was already planning to donate his kidney to a relative. But doctors gave him another option, would he be willing to donate his kidney to Sue instead, if doctors could guarantee his relative would still get a kidney?

“Having a chance to affect more people, more families, it was a no brainer,” says John.

Not only was John a match for Sue, it turns out Sue’s daughter was a match for John’s relative. And so the swap began.

“So even if you wanted to give to your loved one and you’re not compatible, there might be some couples out there who have the same situation like you, and you guys can exchange, it’s a win-win for everybody,” says Dr. Wee.

Over two weeks, Dr. Wee performed the kidney transplant surgeries in this chain at the Clinic.

After the surgery, Sue knew she had to meet her hero.

“He saved my life, he saved my life, that’s what he did," says Sue about John.

Moments later, John walked into the room. Sue would see her kidney donor for the first time. She hugged John, telling him, "Thank you, thank you. You are my hero. You’re everybody’s hero.”

Sue’s husband, Ron, was overjoyed: “Johnny, I told him thanks, it’s not enough.”

As for John, “I’ve always felt, why am I so lucky to be so blessed to be healthy and everything I do have, it’s nice to be able to help others and when you do get a chance to do that, just got to be ready to make that decision.”

John and Sue are now forever linked by this lifesaving gift, but both they and their families hope that their story, will create a chain reaction.

“Thank you. Maybe you show this and somebody else will donate," says Ron.

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