Atrium Health teammate, Chris, donates kidney to complete stranger in need, Steve

News | 4 months ago

From One Father to Another, Man Finds Calling to Donate Kidney to Stranger

Steve Sanders knew a kidney donation would give him a second chance at life. When an exhaustive search of friends and family members found no compatible matches, Steve found hope in the unlikeliest of places — a stranger who worked at Atrium Health who was inspired by his story. Learn more about the selfless act that saved Steve’s life.

 

Several years ago Steve Sanders learned his kidneys were slowly failing and wasn’t quite sure what his future would hold. 

Due to a rare, genetic kidney disease, his decline was slow but certain. It meant Steve would need to make a choice between lifelong dialysis or a donor kidney. 

An active father of two, Steve wasn’t confident dialysis would offer the same quality of life he had shared with his children. And so, his search for a matching kidney began. 

“I didn’t think dialysis would afford me the ability to do the things I’m able to do with my children now,” said Steve. “Finding a match for a live kidney meant it would likely last twice as long compared to a cadaver kidney and we would have the benefit of testing the donor beforehand.”

A kind stranger offers hope

Time passed and Steve still hadn’t found a match. Many loved ones, as well as strangers, offered up their help only to learn they were not a good match. 

“I first looked to family, friends and those in my close circle, but they either didn’t qualify or weren’t a match,” said Steve. “I knew the process would take time but as time went on, it became more apparent I would need a new kidney soon.”

Steve posted about his search for a kidney donor on social media.

Miraculously, in July 2021, Chris Perez, Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center director of volunteer services, learned about Steve’s story. 

“My wife saw Steve’s post and brought it to my attention,” says Chris. “I read through his story and saw that he, too, had children.”

Immediately, Chris felt a pull to see what he could do to help.

“It was something about his story as a dad, and I was trying to imagine a situation like that in which I would need help,” said Chris. “I didn’t know him but thought let’s give this a try — I would want someone to do this for me.”

It’s a match!

After a series of tests, the Atrium Health transplant team determined Chris’ kidney to be a match. 

Soon after learning this and before the surgeries, Steve arranged to meet the stranger who would quite literally be offering him a second chance at a normal life.

“I was nervous but I got his number and texted him,” says Steve. “Luckily, we hit it off right away.” 

Chris and Steve learned quickly just how much they had in common. They shared similar educational backgrounds, had a compatible sense of humor, and, most of all, took pride in being a father. 

Their friendship grew from there, and they began to spend time together with both of their families leading up to the surgeries. 

When asked what the kind act meant to him, Steve was quick to reply with gratitude. 

“It means everything to me,” adds Steve. “It’s a chance at continuing to have a normal life with my kids. It shows Chris’ commitment to being a father and allowing me the same chance.”

No stranger to Atrium Health teams

According to Steve, his care team at Atrium Health was one reason he was able to remain hopeful and calm throughout the process. 

“My support team has been incredible and the doctors have made me feel I’m in excellent hands,” says Steve. “They do a great job working together to make sure patients get the best care.”

No stranger to Atrium Health transplant teams, Chris echoes Steve’s sentiments. Not only does he work closely with the doctors would perform his surgery, but his son also underwent open heart surgeries under the care of Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital surgeons years prior.

“My son was just 3 years old when he had his third open heart surgery,” said Chris. “As he went in, I told him, ‘my friends are the best at what they do and will take great care of you’.”

When it came time for his surgery, according to Chris, he had the same conversation with himself.

“I knew I would be OK because my friends and teammates were taking care of me,” Chris says. “I know their skills, their expertise, their outcomes and success rates — and it put me at complete ease.”

Working together for a common goal 

In January 2022, Chris and Steve went in for their surgeries. 

As Chris underwent surgery, Steve was in an adjacent operating room preparing to receive the kidney. 

Kent Kercher, MD, a surgeon at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center (CMC), performed Chris’ laparoscopic live donor nephrectomy, during which he removed his left kidney using a small, laparoscopic device. As he operated, Dr. Kercher felt humbled by the generous act and honored Chris had such faith in his team.

“The fact that Chris was willing to subject himself to an operation and donate to a stranger…it’s a gift you can’t put a value on,” says Dr. Kercher. “I was honored he chose us and had confidence in us to take care of him.”

Once Dr. Kercher removed Chris’ kidney, he handed it off to Vincent Casingal, MD, chief of the Division of Abdominal Transplant at CMC, to transplant into Steve. 

According to Dr. Casingal, Chris’ status as a “live donor” meant Steve’s new kidney would likely last longer and function better. 

“A living donor is exciting because in the room next door, Dr. Kercher and his team were working on getting the kidney ready,” said Dr. Casingal. “Once it was ready, he handed it off to me to transplant into Steve’s body. The benefit is we shorten the time the kidney was outside of a body, which allows it to work quicker, better, and longer.”

After a few days in the hospital for post-op care, both Steve and Chris returned home to recover. Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, Steve can look forward to many more years of being active with his children and family. 

Becoming an organ donor could save a life 

If there’s one takeaway from Steve and Chris’ powerful story, it’s to become an organ donor, says Dr. Casingal. 

“We encourage all people to be organ donors.” says Dr. Casingal. “That act alone can impact someone’s life in such a positive way. It’s an easy step anyone can do—and it could save a life.” 

Read more to learn about transplant surgery services at Atrium Health or call 800-562-5752.