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Oakmont couple in 4-way kidney transplant swap

Saturday, June 9th, 2012 | Posted by

The 8 people involved in the operation, in donor/recipient pairs. Seated, L-R: Gilbert Abeya, Bonnie Morrissey, David Brady, Walter (Toby) Cooling. Standing, L-R: Reagan Eilers, Monterey Morrissey, Christina Abeyta, Diane Ortenzio-Cooling

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

When his wife Bonnie Morrissey needed a new kidney, her husband Monterey volunteered his, and eventually doctors found compatible donors in an eight-person swap two weeks ago. (John Burgess / PD)

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.

Read our earlier story about Bonnie Morrissey’s search for a kidney donor.

  • http://www.JacquelineHarmonButler.com Jacqueline Harmon Butler

    This is a thrilling story about modern day hero’s who are willing and do make a huge difference in total stranger’s lives. Bravo!.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Oh, JacKLEEN – thanks!

  • http://www.joanrobins.com Joan Robins

    What a story! I was there, as Bonnie’s friend and supporter–couldn’t help but cry to feel the emotion in the room, people saving others lives, selflessly. A beautiful story and you captured it so well! Bravo is right!

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thank you, Joan. It was a pleasure to meet you that day.

  • KM

    WOW! what a gorgeous group–all heroes. And a fabulous article, Suzie–fascinating.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thank you, KM — I agree, heroes one and all.

  • sharon

    Had read about this in other sources but none really captured the personal nature and joy of all the participants. Thanks to Suzie Rodriguez for such a personal introduction to the donors/recipients, heroes all! I hope this program can be expanded to include more hospitals/areas and additional organs.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Hi, Sharon — Yes, I often wonder what people are really thinking behind the news stories, too. Once in a while I get to find out, as in this case. Thanks for your kind words.

  • Sylvia Edwards

    What a wonderful story, it made me cry (with joy!) at such selfless people willing to help others, and it was so beautifully written.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thank you so much, Sylvia. I’m really glad I had such a happy outcome to write about.

  • Lisa

    Hero is certainly the word that comes to my mind right away! I am in awe of these 8 individuals and this story is beyond inspirational! Captured beautifully in this article….though I would have LOVED to hug everyone myself in that room.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thank you, Lisa. I’m in awe, too. Bonnie was always upbeat through everything. Pretty soon she’ll be swinging her cameras again.

  • Mick Kronman

    Suzie: Great story, told with the proper amount of science and pathos. I’m a friend of Monterrey Morrisy and his wife Bonnie. What’s more, I’m a three-time kidney transplant recipient, expecting my fourth in a few months. I, too, may be part of a paired exchange. I’m so happy for their outcome and grateful for your excellent reporting.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thank you so much, Mick – but wow, you must be setting some kind of record with four transplants. It’s so exciting that we live in a time when transplants, let alone swaps, have such excellent outcomes. Best wishes to you.

  • Ken Burton

    I was introduced to Bonnie telephonically through a mutual friend and was able to share my unique story of getting the kidney I needed from my wife. What a glorious and happy ending. I wish all a long and healthy life!!!

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thanks, Ken. One thing I have learned in delving into this is just how unique all those stories are. I’m glad everything went well for you, too.

  • Dave

    A beautiful story and well told Suzie! A wonderful reminder that there are heroes all around us. So happy Bonnie, Monterey and everyone else is feeling healthy and doing well!

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thanks, David. Indeed, it’s great to see how beautifully this all turned out, how happy Monterey and Bonnie are. Fourteen years of dreading the time of kidney replacement…and now it’s over.

  • Lauren

    Thank you for writing such a beautiful article, Suzie. About such beautiful people- inside and out. If only everyone in the world had a fraction of kindness and love. I am a better person for knowing and loving Bonnie and Monterey- and I be the other families involved feel the same way. Good health wishes all around!

  • Veronica Pilnick

    I am so thankful that my mom was a match for my kidney transplant four years ago, but this option is amazing and can help so many more people! I am looking forward to meeting Bonnie, being support and sharing inspirstion!

  • http://LifeStars.info Marcie

    Suzie, you captured giving and receiving at its ultimate level. What a triumph for everyone involved. I hope this inspires more heros to step forward and donate life. Donors are stars of life!

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thank you so much, Marcie.

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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