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Greatest gift of all - woman donates kidney to a stranger

IU Health University Hospital

Greatest gift of all - woman donates kidney to a stranger

She didn’t know who would get her kidney, this woman just knew she needed to donate to someone.

By TJ Banes, IU Health Senior Journalist,

When she got the call, Maria Smietana said she was ecstatic.

“They told us we were an extraordinary genetic match and my kidney size was also a good match,” said Smietana, who turns 64 in January. It’s hard to tell who was more elated. Smietana was a non-directed kidney donor. Her recipient was a woman she’d never met.

It was during the pandemic when Smietana first started considering living kidney donation.

“I had a friend who died of kidney disease. He was a very life-loving person but had a lot of medial problems and was on dialysis for several years. When he gave up dialysis and went into hospice care it got me thinking about what can I do for someone else without waiting until I die,” said Smietana who has been married to her high school sweetheart, William Swanson for 39 years. “I understand transplants and medicine better than some because I’m a biologist and have worked in medical research for several years.” She’s a regular blood donor and is on the bone marrow transplant. Becoming an altruistic donor was a bigger step toward helping save a life.

Living kidney donors help give renewed health to people experiencing kidney failure. Living donors can reduce or eliminate the need for patients to start dialysis and a healthy kidney from a living donor can function better and last longer than a kidney from a deceased donor.

A living kidney donor isn’t necessarily related to the recipient. Compatibility is based on blood type and tissue typing. Age and size are also taken into consideration. If a healthy donor is incompatible with the intended recipient, the donor may opt to be part of paired donation. Also known as “donor swap” recipient /donor pairs are matched according to compatibility. Over the years, IU Health’s kidney transplant team has performed a number of paired donations. Some chains have included multiple people.

“I really felt comfortable with the process. It took 10 months for me to get through the evaluation and once I was cleared to become a donor, I waited for the day,” said Smietana.

That day came on Oct. 11, 2023.

While Smietana was in one operating room, Joanna May was in another one. Smietana was in the care of IU Health’s Dr. John Powelson; May was in the care of Dr. William Goggins.

May, 61, a longtime resident of Huntley, Ill. was born with cancerous tumors on her vocal cords. She said the radiation used to treat the tumors, damaged her kidneys. She was on dialysis for four years before her kidney transplant.

“We lived in Illinois for my husband’s work. I went to other doctors but I like IU Health and the doctors,” said May, who is married to Tom May and the mother of four boys, including twins. She is also the grandmother to five.

Weeks after surgery, the two women had a chance to meet. They were joined by IU Health Dr. Muhammad Jan, who specializes in kidney health.

“I’m so grateful for the care I received by IU Health and Dr. Jan,” said May. The two women learned a few things they have in common and a few things they don’t.

“We both love milk chocolate but we both like to eat healthy. We’re close in age. I’m short and she’s tall,” said May. They hugged each other and May gave Smietana a gift of appreciation with a poem.

“She was so sweet. I wanted to meet her but it was very emotional,” said May. “Who gives their kidney to a stranger? It’s the greatest gift and I can never repay her for what she’s done for us.”

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