Thrive by IU Health

Eight people form a kidney ‘chain;’ Four people receive the gift of life

Eight people form a kidney ‘chain;’ Four people receive the gift of life

It’s like a tiny sapling that grows into a tree. One person plants the seed and the others become the branches. It’s called a “Kidney Chain” and starts with one single person, who may be a total stranger to the recipient of the first kidney. March is National Kidney Month – a time to raise awareness about kidney disease – a condition that affects nearly 40 million people.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

This story starts with two people – they are both women; they are both wives and mothers; they are both Carmel residents; they are both 59-years-old; they were born three months apart. They are strangers.

But a kidney connects them.

Pediatric dermatologist Dr. Kirsten Turchan planted the seed in what has flourished into a tree of life. On Jan. 30, 2020, Turchan - led by her faith - became an altruistic kidney donor. She didn’t have a friend or family member in need of a kidney; she just knew someone needed her kidney.

“I had people saying, ‘you don’t have to do this,’” said Turchan. “I never felt like I had to do it; I felt like I was called to do it. The hardest thing was I wanted the people closest to me to know it would be what God wanted it to be. I was never scared or nervous.”

Turchan’s non-directed donation meant that another person – likely someone she’d never met - would receive her kidney.

“I don’t even know who received my kidney but I pray for their health every day,” said Turchan. In fact, her recipient, Susan “Sue” Clark is also 59, and also lives in Carmel. Clark’s husband, David, was a willing donor but an incompatible donor for Sue. He donated his kidney, as part of the paired exchange – knowing someone else would need his organ.

And the branches of the tree continued to grow.

David Clark’s kidney was transplanted into Mooresville resident Barry Catt. More branches grew when Catt’s son, Wade Catt, donated his kidney. That organ was transplanted into Alabama resident Walter Ballard IV. Younger brother, Chris Ballard then donated his kidney to Bria Hutchins.

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The Indiana Donor Network (IDN) reports that there were 667 people who received organ transplants from 198 donors in Indiana in 2019. The IDN reports as of February 2020, there were 1,059 Indiana residents awaiting a kidney transplant. Living kidney donors can be friends or relatives of the person waiting for a transplant or complete strangers. Potential donors are carefully evaluated through a series of tests. But when a potential donor is incompatible - either because of blood or tissue type, or size of the kidney - that donor can become part of a kidney exchange. Some donors view it as an investment. They give a kidney and someone else receives a kidney.

Two weeks after donating her kidney, Turchan returned to work at Dermatology Inc. a business founded by her late father, William B. “Joe” Moores. Thirty days after surgery she was riding roller coasters at Disney World celebrating her daughter’s 26th birthday. Married to Don, she is also the mother to Tyler, and the grandmother to his two daughters. Turchan also has strong ties to IU Health and the medical world. Her father attended IU School of Medicine; Turchan followed in his footsteps and also completed her dermatology and pediatric residencies at IU Health. Her son is a third generation IU School of Medicine graduate, and her daughter, Michelle Turchan, works for IU Health’s Riley Children’s Foundation. Her older sister, Mindy Davis, graduated from Indiana University School of Nursing, and worked at Methodist Hospital for a time.

“I have so much confidence in the doctors and staff at IU Health that I was not at all worried,” said Turchan, who was in the care of surgeon Dr. Andrew Lutz. “You go into medicine to take care of people and how better to do it than to donate a kidney?”

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Sue Clark became a patient of Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health at the age of nine. Diagnosed with IgA nephropathy (Berger’s disease) she went on to enjoy a full life, monitored by her family physician. The disease is caused when the antibody “immunoglobulin A” builds up in the kidneys. By the age of 50 Clark started experiencing an increase in her blood pressure. In June of 2019, she was in the care of a nephrologist and was listed for a kidney transplant. The Clarks were no strangers to transplant. More than two decades ago, Sue’s sister – also diagnosed with IgA - received a transplant at IU Health Methodist Hospital. David Clark also had a close friend who received a kidney transplant.

“I’ve seen what kidney transplants do for others. I didn’t want my age to stop me from becoming a donor,” said David, 59. The couple is parents to twin boys age 34, and a daughter, 29. They also have three grandchildren.

“We have a lot of life ahead of us and a lot to live for,” said David. “I can’t say enough about the care I got from my surgeon, Dr. William Goggins, to the lady who checked us in at University Hospital, to the transplant coordinators, to the entire transplant team,” said Sue. Since her transplant she is no longer on medication for high blood pressure or cholesterol.

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Barry Catt was also diagnosed with IgA nephropathy (Berger’s disease). He received his first kidney transplant in 2004. His donor was someone he met through work as a welder. Catt was also near in age to Kirsten Turchan and the Clarks. And like Turchan and the Clarks, he is married and is a parent - he and his wife, Diane, exchanged vows in 1983. Catt is also grandfather.

When his kidneys failed a second time, Catt began dialysis. His youngest son, Wade, was serving in the Peace Corps in Ecuador at the time and returned home in hopes of becoming his father’s donor.

“I knew I was the healthiest, most capable donor candidate in our family, so I decided to come home and go through testing,” said Wade Catt, 27. He wasn’t a candidate for direct donation but he knew he could become part of the donor chain – the tree of life.

“My advice to anyone thinking about kidney donation is to ask plenty of questions and to fully understand the expectation of lifestyle modifications post-operative and to have a clear understanding of what you need to do to stay healthy with one kidney,” said Catt, who is completing a graduate degree in Medical Physiology at Loyola University Chicago. As Wade Catt eyes a career in medicine, his dad is hoping to get back out on the golf course and enjoy more time with his grandchildren. He received his second kidney transplant from David Clark on June 5, 2020 – the day before his 60th birthday.

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Walter Ballard IV, four years older than Wade Catt, received a kidney transplant on Jan. 28, 2020 under the care of IU Health transplant surgeon Dr. William Goggins. Like Barry Catt, it was Ballard’s second kidney transplant. Born prematurely, he was treated for kidney complications at birth. At the age of 15, when he hit a growth spurt, his kidneys began to shut down. He was living in South Bend at the time when his doctor recommended Dr. William Goggins and IU Health’s transplant program. In 2011 he received a kidney from his father.

“One thing about Dr. Goggins is that he is confident and a great doctor. They call him ‘the LeBron James of kidney transplant’ for a reason. He knows what he’s doing,” said Ballard. The sports analogy is something that resonates with Ballard. Growing up in South Bend with a brother who is one year and six days younger, Ballard enjoyed sibling competition.

“We played on the same football and baseball teams all the way through high school,” said Chris Ballard, 30, who lives in Fort Wayne. “Even as adults our relationship basically revolved around competing. We’re so close in age that he’s always been my rival.” When Walter Ballard needed a second transplant his brother didn’t hesitate to join the kidney chain.

“He’s had kidney problems his whole life. I wanted to see him healthy. And then there’s the interest in keeping the person around who pushes you to your limits,” said Chris Ballard, who continues to pursue his interest in sports by playing and coaching rugby.

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Little did Chris Ballard know that his kidney would be transplanted in a fellow Fort Wayne resident. Bria Hutchins, 25, was the final recipient in the donor chain. In 2009 she was diagnosed with lupus. When her kidneys shut down she began dialysis and was in and out of the hospital with poor health. On Jan. 31, 2020, she received Chris Ballard’s kidney. A few days after surgery the two met on the transplant unit of IU Health University Hospital. Like Ballard, Hutchins was also a high school athlete.

They posed for a picture together and Ballard asked Hutchins to sign a keepsake that his mother made that included the words: “Giving Life.” She made a similar gift for Ballard’s older brother that included the words: “Receiving Life.”

“At first it devastated me that I wasn’t a match for my brother but when I knew I could be part of a kidney chain that would benefit more than one person, I felt good about the decision,” said Chris Ballard. “I spent a lot of time managing my diet and making sure my kidney was in the best condition. I was anxious to meet Bria and wish her well.”

Hutchins gave Ballard a card with an angel on the front. They exchanged numbers and talked about staying connected through sports in Fort Wayne.

Mostly, they talked about Hutchins looking toward a future with improved health.

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In addition to their surgeons, the recipients and donors praised the efforts of their IU Health transplant clinical coordinators – Monica Robinson, Tracy Perry, Monisola Bolarin, Alisha Pedigo Turner, Sharla Ping, and Janel Lee. It is the living donor transplant coordinators who worked the donor chain puzzling together the pieces. They started with Turchan, a non-directed donor, and then began adding in non-compatible pairs to give more people the gift of life.

“This wouldn’t be possible without a team effort,” said Turchan. During her testing as a donor she was found to be profoundly anemic and needed iron transfusions. She also learned that she was no match for an initial recipient. That was when the seed was planted.

“I look at that as a blessing. I was all ready to go and the surgeons decided my kidney wasn’t the best size for the intended recipient. I told my transplant coordinator, Sharla Ping, ‘I’ll do whatever I can do to help someone.’ I put it in her hands and God’s hands,” said Turchan.

And at the end of that chain was Hutchins, waiting for a new kidney. “I didn’t think it would happen. I had almost given up hope,” said Hutchins. A year later she says, “I can hang out more without worrying about getting home at a certain time to start dialysis so I can go to work the next day.” And when she goes to work as a dietary aid at a nursing home, Hutchins says she doesn’t worry about getting run down and tired. “I don’t know how else to describe it other than saying, ‘it is freedom.’”

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