Oakmont couple in 4-way kidney transplant swap
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
On May 18, at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Oakmont residents Bonnie and Monterey Morrissey participated in a rare 4-way kidney transplant swap involving four donors and four recipients.
This past Thursday, less than three weeks later, all eight donors and recipients met for the first time. Such gatherings are unusual, because federal guidelines regarding confidentiality stipulate that each person involved in a transplant operation must agree to participate. If one person declines to meet, none of the others can do so
But in this case all eight individuals were eager to shake hands. As it turned out, there was very little shaking of hands. Mostly there were hugs that lasted forever and quite a few tears.
Each of the four people who needed a kidney had a spouse or friend willing to donate a kidney (human beings possess two kidneys, but can lead a completely normal life with only one).
However, three of these pairs were not good transplant matches because blood types were incompatible or for other reasons. Thus, despite having a willing donor, the three potential recipients—all on dialysis—needed to find another donor.
Enter the fourth pair, the fulcrum that changed everything and made the swaps possible. Because Monterey Morrissey possesses Type O blood, he is considered a “universal donor.” In other words, his blood is compatible with any blood type.
The Morrisseys might have chosen to simply have Monterey’s kidney transplanted into Bonnie, but they opted for a more complex path: they decided to become part of a swap between strangers.
“It was an opportunity to help more people,” Monterey said. “And it also allowed us to expand our thinking. We’d be going into surgery not just for Bonnie, but on behalf of others as well. It put a more positive light on the whole situation. And it also gave Bonnie the chance to get a kidney that would be a better match than mine.”
Essentially, swaps match incompatible donor/recipient pairs with alternative compatible pairs. Matches are made using a sophisticated computer program, Silverstone Matchgrid. Utilizing a database, it takes individual characteristics of everyone involved and generates a series of matches in which donors are paired with transplant candidates they don’t know who are compatible with the donated kidney.
According to Dr. Steven Katznelson, Medical Director of the Kidney Transplant Program at California Pacific Medical Center, “Whether a pair is compatible is no longer important. If they’re not compatible, we enter them into the kidney transplant peregrination program. It creates possibilities that didn’t exist in the past.”
The eight operations, which took place from about 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m., required 40-50 members of the hospital staff, including four surgeons, two backup surgeons, two residents, 3 physicians’ assistants, and a large number of nurses.
Aside from Monterey Morrissey, who turned 61 the day after the operation, the other donors were Diane Ortenzio-Cooling, 53; Gilbert Abeyta, 40; and David Brady, 56. The other three recipients besides Bonnie, 61, were Christina Abeyta, 43; Reagan Eilers, 57; and Walter Cooling, 67.
Three pairs–the Coolings, Morrisseys and Abeytas–were married couples. One pair, David Brady and Reagan Eilers, have been friends for 27 years.
Here’s how the kidney swaps ended up:
- Diane Cooling’s kidney was transplanted into Christina Abeyta.
- Gilbert Abeyta’s kidney was transplanted into Bonnie Morrissey.
- Monterey Morrissey’s kidney was transplanted into Reagan Eilers.
- David Brady’s kidney was transplanted into Walter Cooling.
Last Thursday, with donors and recipients ready to set eyes on each other for the first time, reporters and photographers from four TV stations, two radio stations, and five newspapers (including Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily) crowded the medical center’s Thornton Board Room.
Donors and recipients entered the room and sat on opposite sides of the long Board table. The eight people eyed each other politely, wondering.
The first donor-and-recipient pair called to the front of the room to be introduced: Bonnie and Gilbert Abeyta.
“Before I got into the board room,” Bonnie said later, “I didn’t think I’d feel very emotional about meeting my donor. But once I walked into that room and saw the other people involved in the swap, I was so touched.
“And when I went up to meet Gilbert, I melted! While hugging him for the first time, I whispered ‘I didn’t think I’d get all emotional,’ and he said ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ What a doll, what a huge heart. And I loved that cherry tattoo on his neck, too!”
Abeyta later said that he “had caught a glimpse of Bonnie in the hallway the day of the operation. There were lots of people around, but I thought ‘I bet she’s the one getting my kidney.’ I kept thinking about her after the operation. And when I saw her today for the first time, I knew, man. I knew it was her.”
Pair by pair, a donor and recipient met, held tight to each other, laughed, cried, threw out a transplant joke or two, and thanked family, friends, the hospital staff—and each other.
Later, driving home to Sonoma Valley, Bonnie reflected on the day’s events.
“Gilbert and I are now bonded for life in a way that very few people in the world can experience,” she said.
She looked over at Monterey and smiled.
“That Board room was absolutely filled with heroes,” she said.