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Transplant Social Worker Jane Forbes didn’t know transplant Living donor Coordinator Cristina Fontana until recently. It was through living kidney donation that the two became friends.
They laugh. They tear up. They shake their heads in disbelief.
Jane Forbes and Cristina Fontana are sometimes in awe of their chance meeting. They are the same age; live in the same town; share the same doctors; have the same blood type; they both teach yoga; and both donated their kidneys altruistically without knowing the intended recipients.
“We’re a pair. I donated my left kidney and Cristina donated her right kidney,” said Forbes, who works as a social worker with heart and lung transplant patients at IU Health Methodist Hospital. She has been with IU Health since February of 2010 and for seven years she worked with abdominal transplant patients. That experience inspired her to become a kidney donor.
“One of the big reasons I decided to become a living kidney donor was Dr. Taber is a big advocate and proponent of living donation. He would share his message with the staff,” said Forbes. Dr. Tim E. Taber specializes in nephrology at IU Health University Hospital. At one point, Forbes considered donating a kidney to an extended family member but in the end, another suitable donor was matched. On the two-year anniversary of his transplant, Forbes began the testing process for becoming an altruistic donor – one who does not know the recipient. Her surgery was Feb. 1, 2017.
She didn’t know at the time, but another woman was also considering altruistic kidney donation. Fontana learned at a young age the perils of kidney failure. When she was nine, her father was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma – a cancer of the kidneys. He died when she was 14.
“I remember wanting to donate since the first time I heard his diagnosis, I thought if I could give him my kidney maybe he could live, but a nine-year-old can’t do that,” said Fontana. Her mother also became ill with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and eventually went on dialysis when her kidneys failed. She died five months after her last hospitalization. Again Fontanta wondered what she could have done to prolong her mom’s life.
Years went by. Fontana got her first degree in radiation therapy and later obtained a nursing degree. She married Daniel Gomes and they have three children, Gabriela, 26; Tomas, 23, and Alex, 16.
It was when she was caring for a young patient with diabetic complications that she again felt that tug toward kidney donation. It had never left her.
“I told my husband, ‘I’m going to donate a kidney,’” said Fontana. “He asked who I was donating to and I told him I didn’t need to know. I just knew someone would need my kidney.”
The National Kidney Foundation reports there are 121,678 people awaiting lifesaving transplants in the United States. Of those, 100,791 are awaiting kidneys. In 2014, 17,107 kidney transplants took place in the United States. Of those, 11,570 came from deceased donors and 5,537 came from living donors. Living donors can be either matched with a patient, or they can donate to a non-specified recipient.
Both Forbes and Fontana learned that their recipients were young patients at Riley Hospital and University Hospital.
On January 25, 2018, Fontana entered the operating room under the care of Dr. John Powelson who was also Forbes’ surgeon. Before the surgery began, Fontana had made a special request – she drifted off to the classical song, “O Sole Mio,” (my Own Sunshine). Written by Giovanni Capurro the song is famously performed by Luciano Pavarotti, who won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance. The tender song was a favorite of Fontana’s father. As it played through the operating room, the music gave Fontana a peace knowing he was part of her decision.
A mutual yoga friend introduced Fontana to Forbes just weeks before her surgery.
“Talking to Jane I learned how highly she thought of IU Health and the transplant team. I had my records transferred from another hospital,” said Fontana. A few months post-surgery, she began looking into a career in transplant and was recently hired as a coordinator for living donors.
Their meeting is a coincidence but their connection to their recipients is something the women can’t put into words.
On a recent week day morning, Forbes headed to the outpatient clinic at Riley Hospital. She knew that someone special was showing up for a routine check up. Wandering throughout the clinic was Noah Mikel. He was in search of a plastic knife to spread cream cheese on his bagel. Mostly, he was chatting with nurses and fellow patients – all familiar with this 17-year-old – the recipient of Forbes’ kidney.
Over time, Forbes has become acquainted with Noah and his dad Lee, who travel from Goshen. During Noah’s dialysis they made that trip three times a week. Forbes sees a different Noah now. She sees a teenager who is passionate about cars and likes hanging out with his friends at Northwood High School where he is a junior.
As he munches on his bagel, Noah talks about his favorite foods – bacon wrapped chicken and deep-dish pizza. “It’s a new life, now,” said the young man who was diagnosed with a rare genetic defect known as prune belly syndrome – an abdominal muscle deficiency. He was nine when his kidney shut down.
“I just love seeing him so full of life, so confident, so healthy,” said Forbes. As they talk, they look through a wagon filled with collectible cars that Noah has brought to donate to other Riley patients. “It amazes me to think that I didn’t know who my recipient was and now there’s a name and a personality I know – it’s Noah.”
There is a snapshot in Fontana’s memories that will likely last a lifetime. It was the day after her surgery. She walked into the room of the young man who received her kidney. Spanish was his first language and she was asked if she wanted an interpreter. She didn’t need one.
“I was born and raised in Venezuela. Spanish is also my first language. To be able to speak to him and his family in our native tongues is something I can’t explain,” said Fontana. Francisco Mora Guijosa of Frankfort had been on dialysis for three years before he was transplanted. The oldest of four boys, Francisco, 21, is a graduate of Frankfort High School. Just months after his surgery, he says he feels great. He enjoys driving his sporty black Nissan 350Z and hopes to begin work soon.
“He’s pretty quiet, but I do get texts from him a couple times a week,” said Fontana. With Francisco’s approval she shared one of the most recent messages: “You’re a great person who has changed my life. My life is way better since January 25, 2018. I’m happy that I’m no longer doing dialysis. I’m thankful I’m still here and that soon I will accomplish much thanks to you.”
Fontana’s face lights up when she reads the text messages. She knows there’s a part of her, a part of her father’s memory that lives on.
“I used to cry every time I heard the song ‘O Sole Mio.’ Now I just smile,” said Fontana. “I can finally say, I did this in my dad’s memory.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.