‘Matches Made in Heaven’ 8-person kidney swap donors, recipients have emotional first meeting

CHICAGO -- Tears, hugs and warmth radiated from the third floor of the Northwestern Hospital Feinberg Pavilion on Friday as eight strangers came face to face with those that saved their lives.

A remarkable surgical endeavor culminated in an emotionally charged moment. Four individuals needed kidney transplants and each of their own family members wanted to donate their kidneys to them. But these family members were not matches for their counterparts. Through Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Kidney Transplantation Program, the four donors were anonymously paired with those four individuals in need of kidneys.

The rare kidney swap has been nicknamed "Matches Made in Heaven."

The pairs involved in the kidney swap included two married couples, an aunt and son, and a Good Samaritan and a man in need.

Here is a graphic that depicts the kidney swap:

The "Matches Made in Heaven" donors and recipients

When the donors gave up their kidneys, they did not know who would be on the receiving end.  But Friday, the donors and recipients learned whose kidney now belongs to whom.

All those involved embraced one another, strangers just moments before, they now felt like family.

Donors and recipients were exchanging numbers, some realizing they live just minutes apart.

"We'll have kidney dates," joked Patricia Tripolitakis, a kidney recipient.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Kidney Transplantation Program has been running for nearly 10 years. The program makes miraculous moments like this one possible.

When there is a living donor who wants to give a kidney to someone, one out of three times, they will be incompatible and unable to donate to their desired recipient, said Dr. John J. Friedewald, a transplant nephrologist at Northwestern. The incompatibility tends to be from two factors; blood type or a non-tissue match which relates to a persons' antibodies.

From Left: Kidney recipient Lee Jenkins, 51, his wife Loretta Jenkins, 46, and the recipient of Loretta's kidney, Steven Boone, 46

In the past, when a person is unable to donate, the hospital had to tell the patient that they would have to wait for a deceased donor kidney. In Chicago, the wait for a deceased donor kidney takes an average of 5 years. That's 5 years of waiting on dialysis, or in and out of hospitals, with need of constant treatment. But through the Kidney Pair Donation program, the hospital can find matches and allow transplants like the "Matches Made in Heaven" to happen much sooner. And kidneys from living donors tends to be more successful and longer lasting, said Friedewald.

The surgeries took place over two days in June. Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical staff helped make the surgeries a success and all of the donors and recipients are doing well and in good spirits.

"It's the best part of our job, to see things like this happen," said Friedewald.

As new pairs of donors and recipients join the program, Northwestern is able to find new matches. Someone likened it to a game of musical chairs.

Friedewald said that he hopes the story of the "Matches Made in Heaven" kidney swap can encourage others to donate as well.

Friedewald said that doctors evaluate a potential donors physical and mental health, to make sure they're mentally fit and physically healthy enough to donate.

In the conference room at Northwestern Hospital, Steven Boone, 46, a kidney recipient, stands at the podium with Loretta Jenkins, 46, whose kidney he received.

"Thank you seems too small to express our gratitude to you, for saving my life," said Boone, to his donor Loretta.

"You can't understand what this means to an individual who has been on dialysis, who has been doing everything humanely possible to maintain their health," an emotional Boone expressed to the audience.

"You got a good kidney," Loretta joked as the room broke out into laughter.

When Loretta learned that her husband, Lee Jenkins, 51,  needed a new kidney to live, she jumped into action, trying to find any possible way to help. She got online and researched. That's where she stumbled upon Northwestern's transplantation program.  She says for her, it was a no brainer, she wanted to help save her husband's life.

Lee Jenkins received his kidney from Leo Tripolitakis, 51, whose wife Patty Tripolitakis, 51, received her kidney from Donna Spans, 63. Donna's nephew Kevin Condreva, 22, received his kidney from a "Non Directed Donor," who is someone that is not part of a pair, but a Good Samaritan that just wanted to do something nice for someone else. The Good Samaritan anonymously donated their kidney.

Condreva is not allowed to disclose whether he met his anonymous donor, but he expressed his gratitude to the mystery person

"I think it's great, it kinda goes to show it's not all about the attention, it's about giving someone life and letting them continue to live," said Condreva.

Loretta said that if she had a third kidney, she would do this again, and challenged others to think about possibly donating a kidney themselves.

"100 percent I would do this again, even without a family member in need, because you're truly saving somebody's life, you're giving them longevity...I wouldn't change this experience for the world."

For more information on Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Kidney Transplantation Program, click here.