When Shelly Crawford saw a news story about a woman who needed a kidney, something about it spoke to her. Shelly decided to donate one of her kidneys to anyone who needed one. It turns out Celeste Brintley was a match. Now, Celeste says her life has changed, all thanks to her new kidney.

News | one year ago

Donating a Kidney to a Person in Need – How Shelly Saved One Stranger’s Life

When Shelly Crawford saw a news story about a woman who needed a kidney, something about it spoke to her. Shelly decided to donate one of her kidneys to anyone who needed one. It turns out Celeste Brintley was a match. Now, Celeste says her life has changed, all thanks to her new kidney.

Shelly Crawford is a 49-year-old Charlotte resident who has four children and has worked at WBTV, a local television station, for 20 years. She and her husband, Dan, have been married for 15 years and have always found ways to give back to their community. But one day, Shelly felt called to do something really special: donate a kidney.

The story that led to a major decision

“I saw a story on my TV station one day about a woman who needed a kidney,” Shelly explains. “She seemed a lot like me — she was around my age, she had kids. Something about her story just spoke to me.” Shelly, who had never really thought about living kidney donation before, was moved to take action.

Although she wasn’t a match for the woman in the story who needed a kidney, that didn’t change Shelly’s mind about her decision. So, she decided to donate her kidney to anyone who needed it and was a good match for her (a non-directed altruistic donation). Shelly called Atrium Health’s Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at Carolinas Medical Center and spoke to a navigator, who began talking her through the process and requirements.

“I have the gift of health,” Shelly says. “I don’t take it for granted. I’m fortunate to be very healthy. And this was my way of giving back.”

The importance of living donors

There are currently more than 100,000 people in the U.S. waiting for a kidney transplant. Of the 23,000 kidney transplants performed in 2019, only 7,000 of them were living donors.

 “There are tremendous advantages for a patient receiving a kidney from a living donor,” says Kent W. Kercher, MD, the surgeon who performed Shelly’s operation. “We’re able to do much better matching with living donors to make sure we really have the best match possible, which leads to better outcomes.”

The process of donating a living kidney

“It’s a vigorous vetting process,” says Dr. Kercher. “We screen everyone medically as well as psychologically. We really want people to understand what they’re getting into, and make sure that they’re going into this with eyes wide open. We want to make it as safe as possible for both the donor and the recipient.”

Shelly felt comfortable during every step of the process. “I felt confident that this was a safe and good thing to do – I talked to doctors and surgeons and assessed all the risks,” she says. “My navigator was really great about making sure I was never pressured in any way and I could change my mind at any point.”

Any surgery comes with risks, but the risks of a kidney transplant are minimized for the donor and recipient in numerous ways, including COVID-Safe care as well as the use of laparoscopic surgery. Atrium Health also uses ERAS® (Enhanced Recovery After Surgery) to improve surgical care and outcomes. Atrium Health is the first ERAS Society-accredited center of excellence in the United States, the only one in Charlotte and one of only 23 ERAS centers of excellence in the world. 

“This type of operation used to involve a large incision, the removal of a rib, 3-5 nights in the hospital, and a recovery time of at least 4-6 weeks,” says Dr. Kercher. “Now, we perform these operations laparoscopically. That means we make two small ½ inch incisions where the laparoscopic tools were inserted, and about a 3-inch inch incision where they removed the kidney. On average, the donor spends two nights in the hospital. We see them in the office two weeks after surgery, and by then, they’re usually ready to get back to most activities.”

Shelly has two small 1/2 inch-1 inch incisions where the laparoscopic tools were inserted and about a 3-inch incision where they removed the kidney. 

Dr. Kercher also explains, “We perform the operations on the donor and recipient simultaneously, in adjacent operating rooms. I can remove the kidney from the donor, provide it to the surgeon performing the operation on the recipient, and within 10-15 minutes, the donor kidney can be transplanted.”

With kidneys from deceased donors, the kidney may be waiting 24 hours or longer to be implanted, which has a negative impact on the immediate function and long-term survival of the kidney.

Celeste Brintley needed a kidney

Celeste Brintley is 45 years old and never had any major health issues. But then, about ten years ago, she woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t breathe.

“I went to my primary care doctor, who ran some tests and noticed a high level of protein in my urine. The doctor then referred me to a nephrologist. After the nephrologist ran some more tests, he told me I was in kidney failure,” Celeste says. “I was only in my 30s at that time, and had no family history of kidney disease.”

Celeste’s doctor had her start on peritoneal dialysis, which helped her body remove waste that the kidneys would normally remove. She was able to do this in her own home. But after five years, her doctor advised her to switch to hemodialysis, a more complicated process. At first, she was hesitant, but the more she learned about the procedure, the more comfortable she felt.

In 2015, Celeste also suffered a stroke, which made it more complicated for her to do the dialysis on her own. But Celeste’s husband, Paul, was able to help her administer it at home.

In December of 2019, Celeste’s nephrologist told her she was a good candidate for a kidney transplant and she was added to a registry of people in need of a kidney.

“By February of 2020, I was talking to a coordinator about getting all my doctor’s appointments done to prepare for a transplant. Of course, then COVID-19 hit and things were delayed, but by April I was able to complete all my appointments. I was told that I might be a tough match because of the antibodies that had built up in my blood,” Celeste says. “When I was told there was a living donor, and that she was actually a match for me, I was amazed.”

When Shelly Crawford saw a news story about a woman who needed a kidney, something about it spoke to her. Shelly decided to donate one of her kidneys to anyone who needed one. It turns out Celeste Brintley was a match. Now, Celeste says her life has changed, all thanks to her new kidney.

Jose R. Soto, MD is the surgeon who transplanted Shelly’s kidney into Celeste. He explains, “Celeste had a condition called glomerulonephritis, a disease that causes inflammation in the kidney. It’s a common cause of end-stage kidney disease.

When I first met Celeste during the evaluation process, there was no living donor available.  That meant she would need to continue waiting on the transplant list until a suitable donor became available, and continue to be on dialysis.”

In many cases, it’s very difficult for someone with end stage kidney disease to find a living donor. Part of this difficulty is related to the fact that some kidney diseases have a genetic component that can also affect relatives, therefore, making immediate family members ineligible to donate a kidney, says Dr. Soto. “Those who do get approved for living kidney donation are thoroughly evaluated to ensure they have a very low risk of developing kidney disease themselves over their lifetime,” he says. But thanks to the living donation from Shelly, Celeste is feeling well and is happy and healthy with her new kidney. Celeste and Shelly are planning to meet each other in the near future.

Spreading the message about living kidney donation

Shelly says she wasn’t looking for any kind of recognition when she donated a kidney, but she’s sharing her story with the hope that it will inspire another person to act. “Someone might see this and decide to donate a kidney. Of course, you have to have all the pieces in place — a good support system, time, a flexible job,” she says. “But everyone can do something right now. Be a foster parent, donate blood, write a check, volunteer. There’s something everyone can do on some level. Just be kind — we need that right now.”

Celeste agrees, saying, “If you’re thinking of becoming a living donor, just do it! You can really change someone’s life.”

Learn more about kidney transplants

A kidney transplant success story: Luke Brown