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He needed a kidney, she wasn’t a match. A national donation network provided help

Two people sit on a couch
Courtesy of Kathi Anderson
Kathi Anderson (left) sits with Christopher Turnis (right)

Nineteen-year-old Christopher Turnis of Dubuque has faced medical challenges his entire life, beginning before birth.

In utero, Turnis developed a posterior urethral valve, meaning he was unable to empty his bladder. This caused serious kidney and bladder damage. In fact, immediately after giving birth, his mother Kristina was told by doctors that her son might die within hours. While he's outlived the doctors' early concern, Turnis' kidney and bladder damage has required ongoing medical treatment and surgery.

A needed transplant

It was always clear to Turnis' family that a kidney transplant would at some point be necessary. Around his sixth birthday, Turnis' health took a turn for the worse, putting him on the transplant list for a new kidney. He remembers blowing out the candles on that birthday and wishing for a kidney.

"And low and behold, a few weeks later I was in the O.R. getting a new kidney," Turnis said.

But kidneys don’t last forever. Deceased donor kidneys, like the one Turnis received at age six, usually last between 12 and 15 years. Given that timeline, pediatric patients can expect to need between two and four kidney transplants in their lives.

Turnis said he was lucky that his donated kidney lasted him 13 years.

By his junior year of high school, he could tell his kidney from age six wasn't working as well. He felt fatigued and was struggling to keep up in school.

"I would go to school, those eight hours, and then I would come home, take a nap, do homework for a little while, and then go to bed,” he said. "It's just something that kind of wore on school and my social life."

As it became clear that Turnis' replacement kidney was declining, his mother posted on Facebook that her son needed a living kidney donor within a year. The post reached Turnis’ former Kid Captain escort, Kathi Anderson, and she started the process to see if she was eligible to donate.

"God gave us two kidneys, and I had one to spare," she said.

But when Anderson, a pediatric physical therapist at the University of Iowa Stead Children's Hospital, spoke with nephrologists, she learned her kidney wasn't a match.

That's where the National Kidney Registry (NKR) was brought in. They began to create a transplant chain.

Kidney transplant network

A transplant chain starts with a good Samaritan, who donates a kidney to someone who is a good match. That recipient has a friend or family member willing to donate despite not being a good match. They instead donate a kidney to someone else who is a good match, and the chain continues. Chains can be as short as two people or as long as 30, according to the NKR.

a drawing of kidneys showing how a donation chain works
National Kidney Registry

When Turnis found out about Anderson's plan to donate, he had mixed feelings.

"I didn't know what to think. I was waiting for what felt like forever. I was feeling excitement. I was feeling joy. I was also feeling a little bit scared. And I was like, 'Oh, wow, this is getting real now. Like, how much longer until this actually happens?'"

Turnis and Anderson utilized the voucher program through the NKR. It's similar to a traditional chain, but only involves one donor and one recipient. In the voucher program, someone who wants to donate to a loved one but is a poor match donates to someone who is a good match. The loved one then receives a voucher that prioritizes them on the list for a living kidney donor. The voucher program makes more sense for those who have a loved one who needs a kidney as soon as possible.

Anderson agreed to donate her kidney to someone who was a compatible match, and within two months, Turnis had a kidney ready for him.

The second transplant

The day of Turnis' transplant also happened to be the day of Anderson's surgery. Anderson donated her kidney at 7 a.m. that morning, and Turnis received his new kidney later that day from Georgia.

Anderson's recovery went well. She was discharged the day following the operation and took four weeks off from work. Turnis said he didn't remember a lot from the first three days post-op, but remembered waking up on day four feeling hungry.

"I remember waking up and just wanting to eat everything in sight," he said.

Kathi gives Chris a hug
Courtesy of Kathi Anderson

Turnis was discharged a week after surgery, feeling more energized. Despite a successful surgery, he soon faced complications unrelated to his new kidney, including severe stomach pain and vomiting. He was hospitalized and ultimately diagnosed with pancreatitis and another related issue.

A couple of months after the surgery, he said he feels similar to how he was before the transplant but is hopeful that he will once again have the energy he had post-surgery.

“I went through hell and back... Those last two weeks in January [were] terrible,” Turnis said. “My body just went through a lot, and I just need to give it a little time.”

Recovery and looking forward

Turnis is taking time off school as he recovers and, as he does, is reflecting on his medical experiences. He notes that they've influenced his future aspirations. He hopes to one day work in the Child Life program at Stead Children's Hospital and says he wants to bring comfort to hospitalized kids by relating to their experiences.

Those who work in the hospital have also taken note of the heartwarming situation of Turnis and Anderson.

"It's always amazing when stories like this work out," said Kyle Merrill, one of the hospital’s two pediatric nephrologists who specialize in pediatric kidney transplants.

How you can help kidney patients

There are many more people in need of a new kidney than are available. The National Kidney Foundation estimates that while 100,000 Americans are currently waiting for a kidney transplant, only 22,817 received a kidney in 2020. According to the foundation, 12 people die every day waiting for a new kidney.

Anyone who is thinking about being a living donor should learn as much as they can, and talk to those who have been through the process if possible. For those considering being a donor after death, like on an Iowa driver's license, Merrill says it's "the last gift that somebody can give."

For more information about transplants, visit the National Kidney Foundation.

Phineas Pope is a digital production assistant at Iowa Public Radio
Dani Gehr is a producer for River to River and Talk of Iowa. Dani came to Iowa from her hometown in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to attend Iowa State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism, international studies and French. Before coming to IPR, Dani covered local government in Story County for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa