When Dillon McCarty was 13, he received a very special gift from his stepfather Nicholas Gula—a new kidney.
But Gula, 34, didn’t donate his kidney to Dillon. Instead, he gave it to a stranger, a 29-year-old man also in need of a kidney transplant in Atlanta. And in return, the man’s wife gave her kidney to Dillon.
The carefully choreographed “operation” involved two selfless donors, two flights, two states, three hospitals and four surgeries—more than one thousand miles apart—inexplicably tying two families.
“It was a dream,” says Gula. “I was saving two lives. Words can’t even express how I felt.”
The reason for the kidney swap was simple. To be a match, a donor’s blood type and antibody testing must be compatible with the recipient. Dillon had relatives—including his stepfather—who were willing to donate, but those donors were incompatible. Only his mother Samantha McCarty was a match, but not one that would work for Dillon.
“I was diabetic during my first pregnancy, and the doctors were concerned that with my kidney, Dillon would become diabetic as well,” says McCarty. “So, we began the search for an organ donor.”
A kidney match made in Atlanta
The search did not take long. Boston Children’s Hospital renal transplant coordinator, Courtney Loper, who has known Dillon since he was diagnosed with kidney dysplasia in 2008, asked the McCarty family if they would be interested in participating in a United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) program that matches incompatible donor-recipient pairs through a nationwide pool. Without hesitation, Gula said, “Sign me up.” Within a week after the necessary donor testing was complete, a four-way match was identified.
“Without a living donor, our pediatric patients often have to wait months or even years on the waiting list,” says Loper. “Because a kidney from a living donor transplant typically has better outcomes and lasts nearly twice as long as one from a deceased donor, Boston Children’s Renal Transplant Team encourages living donor transplantation when possible. The kidney pairing program significantly increases our patients’ options and the likelihood of receiving a living donor transplant.”
On June 12, 2014, after five months of dialysis, Dillon received his new kidney. The successful procedure meant that both donors had to fly to their recipients’ surgical locations. Dillon’s donor traveled to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston—where Boston Children’s living donors undergo surgery—and Gula traveled to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.
“When I got on the plane, it hit me—I was scared,” Gula says. “But on my way into surgery I was thinking, I am going to do this. It made me feel invincible.”
For privacy reasons, the identities of donors and recipients are kept secret. Typically, they are not permitted to meet for six months to a year, but Dillon’s mom couldn’t wait that long. She needed to meet the stranger who had saved her son’s life.
“She was still in recovery when we first talked on FaceTime,” says McCarty. “Now we are friends on Facebook, we talk, we email. We are family.”
Gula had a chance to meet his recipient. He had been waiting for a transplant for four years. “Learning his story made me feel like it was meant to be,” he says. “I have a new extension to my family. I talk with him all the time. Even our parents are friends.”
Kidney swap: What a difference a year makes
It has been nearly a year since Dillon’s surgery, and it will likely be a long time before he will need another—living donor kidney transplants typically last 15 to 20 years. For the most part, life has returned to normal. His mom is especially cautious about cleanliness and protecting Dillon from anyone with even the slightest sniffle, but she is slowly learning to relax. This summer, the family is planning a trip to Disney World, a special treat for Dillon. They’ve been saving up for months.
“The whole experience has brought our family closer and opened our eyes,” says McCarty. “I have shared our story with other parents and told them if you can’t find a match in your family, do a swap. You never know. You might have your match waiting for you.”
The experience also has tightened the bond between Dillon and his stepfather. After the surgery, Gula, whom Dillon affectionately calls “Big Nick,” bought a t-shirt for his son, a special one, recommended by the renal transplant team, with a bulletproof-like padding covering the exact spot where Dillon received his new kidney—extra protection. Big Nick will tell him, “Put on your t-shirt so we can wrestle.” And Dillon runs to his room and returns, shirt donned, big smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes.
“You can tell the difference from the child with kidney disease and the child now,” says Gula. “There was a weight upon him. He knew he might die. What he has gone through, I couldn’t even fathom. What I did was nothing in comparison. He is my hero.”
Learn more about the Boston Children’s Kidney Transplant Program.