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Patient Stories

Finding A (Nearly) Perfect Donor Match In A Friend Despite Differences

Jan. 4, 2023

Donerik Black and his longtime friend, Chris Cornwell, don’t have the same ethnic, racial or genetic makeup—but their friendship is bound by love for one another—and now, by a living kidney donation.


“If we can get beyond the melanin—which has been the fabric of a horrible side of the world—we’ll see that we are more alike than different.” Donerik Black UC Health living kidney donor recipient

Donerik and Chris’ story is proof that it doesn’t matter what people look like on the outside, because we’re all the same on the inside.

KIDNEY FUNCTION

To understand their story, you need to understand the function of the kidneys. The kidneys are a pair of organs, located just below the ribs and in the middle of the back. Part of the urinary tract system, the kidneys’ primary function is to play the role in removing the liquid waste, or urea, from the blood, as well as other toxins left over in our blood and bowel after consuming food and drink. They also remove excess water from the body.

Symptoms of kidney disease and failure appear gradually over time causing a person to experience:

  • Sleeping issues.
  • Weakness.
  • Itching.
  • Swelling.
  • Anemia-fatigue.

When the kidneys don’t expel the urea, the waste and fluid build-up in the body, making the person ill—resulting in kidney failure.

“Patients may also experience nausea, a metallic taste in their mouth and neuropathic pain from buildup of toxins,” Manish Anand, MD, UC Health nephrologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine explained.

Diabetes and high blood pressure are the most common causes of improper kidney function, but this, however, was not the case for Donerik.

DONERIK’S STORY

In 2006, Donerik donated one of his kidneys to his father, who was on dialysis for several years due to diabetes. Donerik’s gift gave his father an additional 14 years of life, until his passing in 2020.

After Donerik’s kidney donation, he developed cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease. By October 2014, Donerik was put on the national transplant waitlist for a new heart. In January 2015, his health was deteriorating rapidly, and he ended up in the hospital for 49 days waiting for a new heart.

Finally, in February 2015, one day before his 45th birthday, Donerik received the gift of life from a deceased organ donor.

“It’s hard to pray for a heart because someone has to die for me to live,” Donerik explained, “but my counselor put in perspective that [the donor] already made the decision that they want to help someone.”

Despite receiving this life-saving gift, the anti-rejection medication that Donerik was taking to keep his newly transplanted heart healthy, was damaging his remaining kidney over time—to the point of kidney failure.

“Advanced chronic kidney disease or end-stage renal disease risk after heart or other non-kidney transplants is anywhere from 10-20%, sometimes even higher,” Dr. Anand said. “However, the likelihood of this happening is based on many factors such as the age of the patient and other risk factors for kidney or heart disease.”

KIDNEY TRANSPLANT

According to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), 37 million people have chronic kidney disease, more than 600,000 people live with kidney failure and 100,000 people are on the national waitlist for a kidney transplant.

Kidney transplant recipients can receive a kidney from a living or deceased donor. Kidneys from a deceased donor last on average 15-20 years, and kidneys from a living donor 20-25 years—the success of both are dependent on a variety of medical factors of both the donor and recipient.

“There are many factors that make living organ donations more successful than deceased organ donations,” Dr. Anand said.

Dr. Anand went on to explain the benefits of organs from living donors, that include but are not limited to:

  • The patient may be able to receive their kidney donation prior to needing dialysis.
  • The patient may avoid long wait for a deceased donor match.
  • The organ donation and transplant surgery are planned, so there are less complications, as both the donor and recipient are in optimal state.
  • There is a chance of receiving a better matched organ, so there is less risk of organ rejection.
  • There is less of a need for anti-rejection medications for the recipient.

WHAT MUST MATCH WHEN DONATING A KIDNEY?

In order to be considered as a living kidney donor, the potential donor must be in excellent medical health, with kidney function in perfect condition.

“When it comes to matching, we look at three things: similar blood group, tissue or HLA typing, and crossmatch,” explained Dr. Anand.

  • Blood group: A donor and recipient’s blood type must be similarly matched to ensure the donor’s blood antibodies react positively with the recipient’s blood antibodies.
  • Tissue or human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing and matching: HLA are proteins in the body that detect if/when there are cells in the body that don’t belong. In order for successful organ transplantation to occur, and to avoid organ rejection, the donor and recipient’s HLA should be closely matched, if possible.
  • Crossmatch: The final test that identifies if the recipient’s serum (blood) has presence of antibodies against the donor. If the crossmatch test is positive, the donation does not take place, as the recipient’s body will reject the donor kidney.

“Our UC Health Transplant team has more than 50 years of experience in managing transplant recipients, including specialized evaluation of highly-sensitized and difficult-to-match recipients,” Dr. Anand said. “In today’s era with anti-rejection medications, we are able to achieve good outcomes, even if a match is zero.”

Other factors, such as body size, severity of illness and how long a person has been on the waitlist, play into donor matching.

FINDING A KIDNEY DONOR

Donerik was put on the kidney transplant waitlist in December 2021. Kidney waitlist participants are encouraged to create a website and share their stories on their social media platforms to aid in finding a living donor.

“I will admit, when we started talking about needing a kidney, it was a struggle to ask for it. I’m not that guy to ask for help—I was raised to grind things out on my own,” Donerik said.

Reluctantly, and with a nudge from his doctors and wife, Angie, Donerik created a webpage dedicated to sharing his journey and his need for a kidney.

“You don’t know what people’s reaction will be,” he explained. “It’s one thing to ask someone to help you move, it’s another to ask for a body part.”

After hearing of Donerik’s need, friends and family sprang into action to get tested to see if they were a match, including his friend, Chris Cornwell.

BECOMING A LIVING KIDNEY DONOR

Chris, a former police officer, has always been listed as an organ donor. Throughout his career, he had heard and seen how transplantation had helped others out.

When he learned about Donerik, Chris said it was a no-brainer decision, and he immediately began the online process to see if he was a match for Donerik.

“As I was going through the process, the more I learned about donating my kidney, the more I discovered that the risk for me is minimal,” Chris said.

“On top of that, I was evaluated from head to toe, which reassured me that my health is intact.”

The donor evaluation process can take several months to complete—including extensive questionnaires, blood and urine tests, X-rays, interviews and an MRI.

DONATING A KIDNEY TO A FRIEND: A (NEARLY) PERFECT MATCH

Despite their differing appearances, Chris got the call from the UC Health Transplant team, saying that he was a perfect match for Donerik.

“I called Donerik to tell him I was a match,” Chris said. “He was at work, so we conferenced  in his wife too.”

They all broke down in tears—of all of those who got tested for Donerik, his longtime friend was a (nearly) perfect match.

Does race or ethnicity matter for organ transplantation?

In short, yes—the chance of longer survival post-transplant may be greater when the donated organ is matched to a recipient with similar racial and ethnic background.

Currently, two-thirds of our kidney waitlist is comprised of non-white patients,” Dr. Anand explained. “Although sharing the same race or ethnicity may help get a better match, it is not needed.”

Many transplant recipients receive organs from donors of different genetic and racial backgrounds and go on to live full, healthy lives.

However, by broadening the diversity of the donor pool, people on the transplant waitlist may get transplanted faster and have a greater chance of longer-term survival because they are more closely matched to someone with a similar race or ethnicity.

CHRIS AND DONERIK TODAY

In June 2022, Chris and Donerik traveled from Dayton, Ohio, to UC Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. After a successful kidney donation to his friend, Chris went home 24 hours later, and Donerik was home just a few days after that.

For Donerik, he no longer has to wait, wondering about tomorrow.

“I wake up knowing I can continue to grow business, enjoy BMX racing and watch my daughter grow up. All because someone decided to help me live,” Donerik said.

Chris was quickly back to doing all of the activities he enjoyed prior to his kidney donation.

“Nothing has changed,” he said joyfully. “The entire [living kidney donation] process has been a wonderful experience.”

However, becoming a living organ donor made such an impact on Chris that it inspired him to make a career change—working directly with those impacted by organ donation.

Chris now serves as a family service coordinator for Life Connection of Ohio, helping family members of potential organ and tissue donors throughout the process of donation within hospital systems.

“It’s all about saving someone else’s life,” Chris said. “We’re all here to love each other and help each other out.”