National Donate Life Month: N.Y. sisters find transplant success in N.C.

Updated: Apr. 15, 2021 at 6:57 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Atrium Health performs over 120 kidney transplants a year in Charlotte. One of those life altering donations went to Jennifer Fish.

“I remember just before the transplant, the doctors had told me that I needed to find a kidney more urgently because the dialysis was starting to affect my heart and at some point we were going to be at the end of the rope,” Fish said.

Fish shared her transplant success story with WBTV a year after her procedure in celebration of National Donate Life Month.

“[This donation] literally means my life.”

Fish’s journey started in her home city of Rochester, New York where she received a leukemia diagnosis at the age of 14.

“After radiation and chemotherapy, I ended up relapsing and needed more radiation and chemo, and then I eventually got a bone marrow transplant in 2001,” Fish said.

The bone marrow transplant allowed Fish to live a healthy life for more than a decade. She moved to the Charlotte area in 2012.

In 2017, doctors told Fish the chemotherapy and radiation from her childhood cancer treatment damaged her kidneys. Fish said she immediately went on dialysis. Her youngest sister, Allison got tested to see if she was a kidney donation match.

“Allison was able to get tested but unfortunately, she wasn’t a match for me. For various reasons my other sisters weren’t a match or were unable to be tested.”

“I love my sister and wanted to do everything I could,” Allison Fish said.

Allison Fish explained they come from a close-knit family. They turned to Atrium Health’s paired exchange program which makes incompatible donors work.

“Having those donors and recipients open to that concept that takes work,” Dr. Vincent Casingal said. “[Processing the idea] that ‘I’m going to trust that I’m donating a kidney and my family member is going to get one in return.’”

Dr. Casingal who is the surgical director of the kidney transplant program at Atrium Health explained that by Allison being willing to donate to a stranger, Jennifer had a higher chance of receiving a kidney.

“Going into the paired exchange, I was kind of nervous,” Allison Fish said. “I hoped I would have been a perfect match for Jennifer but the next best thing was a paired donorship and I’m glad it worked out.”

In January 2020, the Fish sisters learned they would be matched with donor Susan Walker and recipient William Ellis.

Walker is considered a good Samaritan donor. She made the decision to donate without knowing Jennifer would be the recipient. She did it after spending years as a nurse in a Charlotte area medical center treating people on dialysis.

“I had seen up close with my patients how grueling this life can be. It’s relentless I imagine,” Walker said.

Ellis, who is from Shelby, North Carolina needed a kidney and spent years on the donor list. He was next in line and matched with Allison Fish.

“I’m grateful this opportunity came about for all of us,” Ellis said. “Especially us not knowing each other or what to expect. There are good people out in the world.”

The group of four were able to meet less than a week after their successful surgeries and recently had a reunion marking a year since the procedures.

“I wanted to meet Susan and thank her and let her know how much this meant to me. It literally means my life,” Jennifer Fish said.

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