Thrive by IU Health

June 28, 2022

Nurse’s Kidney Kindles Circle of Kindred Support by Six Women

Nurse’s Kidney Kindles Circle of Kindred Support by Six Women

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

As Abby Berg describes her life - a wife, mother to three (including twins), and a nurse - she pauses. She talks about her father, and then tells about the loss of her mother.

Berg was in her first year of nursing school when her mother died of complications from breast cancer. Her mother was 58. Fifteen years later, Berg is realizing an unexpected benefit to donating her kidney to a stranger.

“When they walked into my room, it reminded me of my mother and her friends,” said Berg, 40. It was the day after she donated her kidney that she met her recipient - the woman who was once a stranger, Anita Wojda, 63, of Plymouth, Ind.

That meeting was only the start of a bigger cast in this organ chain.

Photo: Abby Berg (left) with Anita Wojda (right)

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 - 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.

Berg started what can be thought of as sort of a “family tree.” Her kidney went to Wojda. In turn, Wojda’s friend, Susan Nichter, donated her kidney to Ellen Huynh. Sophia Huynh Ong, the daughter of Huynh, donated her kidney to Shirley Oommen.

It all took place in a matter of days, May 11-16, and in about the same amount of time the women all became friends.

Photo: Shirley Oommen (left) with Sophia Huynh Ong (right)

“It’s true what they say about Hoosier Hospitality,” said Berg, who works as a nursing instructor at IU Bloomington. Even before the day of her surgery, Berg’s intentions were discovered as she and Nichter shared a waiting room. Nichter, who just turned 71, began chatting with Berg, learned that she was a nurse, and looked her up on social media. When she found a photo of Berg with her father, Steve Cernkovich, she told her friends to be on the look out for Cernkovich on transplant day.

One thing led to another and the next thing Berg’s dad knew he was being stared at by two women in the surgery waiting room. Finally, the two women - Nichter’s sister and her friend - approached him and told the story of the kidney chain. The three joined together for lunch and passed the time chatting while their loved ones were in surgery.

The day after Berg donated her kidney, the two women suggested she walk down to meet her recipient. Not long afterward, all the women were connecting the dots and creating a text message group to keep in touch.

Typically, organ recipients do not meet their donors until months after transplant. This was an unusual case.

“We’re a chatty, social bunch. I did not expect to meet my recipient so quickly and I didn’t expect to have this group of women who are now part of my circle. My mother was my best friend and they’re around her age so it’s made me feel closer to my mom,” said Berg. She made the decision to become a living donor last year and on a summer night she sat in bed and completed the application.

“I think as a nurse there’s that strong pull to help others,” said Berg. She received her nursing degree from Case Western Reserve University, her master’s from IU and her doctorate from Purdue University. Her first nursing job was at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health where she worked in the stem cell transplant unit.

Her recipient, Wojda, 63, has been married to Mark Wajda for 32 years. They have two adult sons and one grandchild. Anita Wojda was diagnosed with Polycystic kidney disease (PKD). The inherited disorder causes clusters of cysts to develop in the kidneys. She is one of five children; four have been diagnosed with the disease. Her brother and mother both had kidney transplants. Like Berg, she too lost her mother. Wojda started dialysis last year and had been in the care of IU Health’s Dr. Nupur Gupta.

When Nichter’s sister was unable to be a donor for Wojda, she decided to go through the testing. “We learned pretty early on that I was not a match for Anita but it was crazy how good of a match I was for Ellen (Huynh),” said Nichter, who spent her career working as a school social worker. She has been married 38 years to her husband, Ron. They lost two children at birth and have raised two adult children and have two grandsons.

“I always thought I was meant to do something like this and I truly believe it is all God directed,” said Nichter, of Carmel. “I had barely been out of recovery when Sophia (Ong) and her sister were in my room thanking me and bringing me an oriental orchid.”

Photo: (from left to right) Susan Nichter, Ellen Huynh, & Sophia Huynh Ong

Like the other friends Ellen Huynh’s daughters were in the waiting room when they began chatting with Nichter’s husband. They realized their mother’s surgery was the same time and figured out that Nichter was donating her kidney to their mother, Ellen Huynh. Her kidney failure resulted from high blood pressure and diabetes. She had been on dialysis for a year.

In a hand-written note, Huynh’s family said: “Words cannot express my gratitude. Thank you for your generous, unselfish gift of organ donation. Your generosity and kind heart are truly a blessing to our family. We are very appreciative and our mother will give thanks every day for this gift of life.” The front of the note showed a pair of kidneys with the words: “Kidney buddies for life.”

Ong is the oldest of Huynh’s children. She has two other daughters and a son. Ong was raised in Fort Wayne and graduated from Purdue University-Fort Wayne. She has been married to Jimmy Ong for 11 years. They reside in New Orleans where she works with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

“My sister and I both tried to donate to our mom. When we weren’t compatible we learned of the paired donation. It’s been an amazing journey especially meeting all these women,” said Ong, 35.

Like the other donors, Ong, could not wait to meet her recipient. Oommen, 49, was diagnosed with Type II diabetes 18 years ago. She was on dialysis for four years before receiving her transplant. An Indianapolis resident, she has been married to Koshy Oommen for 26 years. They have one son, 20.

Since transplant, the women have talked about symptoms - such as nausea and fatigue. They have sent birthday wishes, and look forward to seeing each other during hospital check ups. And beyond their shared transplants, they have learned more about their commonalities - Berg and Ong are both mothers to twins, Huynh is a twin. They have similar hobbies such as gardening and they all have a deep love for family and a sincere desire to continue their friendship.

Berg joined her transplant recipient for the VIP viewing of the premiere of “Top Gun,” and the women have already begun talking about a holiday get together.

Mostly, when they are together, they are animated and talk fast. They want to catch up and hang onto every moment they share. “This is about a new chance at life and we don’t want to miss it,” said Nichter. “As a nurse, I have seen so much suffering,” said Berg. “Donating a kidney gave me the opportunity to lessen someone’s suffering and improve their quality of life and potentially extend their life. For me, the decision to donate was easy.“

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