July 2, 2024

A remarkable gift and a joyful reunion as kidney recipient meets her living donor

Photo of Liz Schumacher and Shelley Hawbecker
Liz Schumacher and her kidney donor, Shelley Hawbecker — both are Wisconsin natives

MADISON, Wis. – On a sunny Wisconsin morning, Shelley Hawbecker and Liz Schumacher exchanged tears, smiles and a pair of kidney-shaped slippers, a nod to the connection the two women share through living organ donation.

“I have been looking forward to this moment for months,” Schumacher said. “It is an incredible feeling to look Shelley in the eyes and thank her for giving me the gift of life.”

Separated by 2,000 miles, the women have gotten to know one another through video calls and text messages but their first face-to-face meeting happened June 27, exactly one year since Hawbecker donated a kidney to Schumacher.

“My mantra in life is, ‘Do what you can for others’ and donating a kidney to someone who needed one felt like the right thing to do,” Hawbecker said.

She first realized she wanted to become a living donor in August 2022 while commuting from her job as a teacher in Portland, Ore. The 48-year-old saw a billboard for the National Kidney Registry, a national network that partners with transplant centers to connect living donors to compatible recipients. Hawbecker immediately began researching the process of living donation through the UW Health Transplant Center in her home state of Wisconsin.

“This was so I could recover at my parents’ house during my summer break and my son could spend time with our family in Wisconsin,” she said.

She traveled to Madison four months later to complete the necessary physical and medical tests, which indicated she was a strong candidate for living donation. Hawbecker told everyone she could about her upcoming donation, including friends at her local gym.

“One of the women shared a story about her nephew Scott, who was close to my age and I decided to connect with him,” she said. “I learned he had chronic kidney disease and would truly benefit from this life-saving gift.”

Hawbecker decided to donate for Scott, who would then receive a voucher for a kidney from a more compatible match. Frequently, kidney exchanges through the National Kidney Registry take place when a donor and their intended recipient have different blood types or are not a good match for other reasons, according to Dr. Joshua Mezrich, transplant surgeon, UW Health Transplant Center, who performed Hawbecker’s donation surgery.

“When we work with the National Kidney Registry, we expand the pool of potential recipients which allows for better matching and a lower risk of rejection,” said Mezrich, who is also a professor of surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “When kidneys are well-matched to the recipient, they last longer and cause fewer problems.”

Schumacher understands the importance of a well-matched kidney — the 52-year-old has needed four kidney transplants throughout her life. A native of Chilton, Wis., who now lives in the Chicago area, she has been traveling to UW Health since the 1980s when she was a child newly diagnosed with acute glomerulonephritis, a type of kidney disease that causes inflammation and damages the tiny filters inside the kidneys.

“I was in gymnastics and swimming and I just couldn’t keep up,” she said. “When my parents took me to the doctor, the blood tests showed I had this kidney disease.”

She underwent her first transplant at age 11 in 1983. Her father was her donor, and the late Dr. Hans Sollinger was her surgeon.

“I had two transplants by the time I was 12,” she said. “The team in Madison was absolutely dedicated to finding a lasting solution for me.”

By the time she entered high school, Schumacher knew she wanted to support other patients with chronic diseases. That decision led her to law school, and she became an attorney and patient advocate. In her late 40s, her third transplanted kidney began to lose function. In early 2023, she started hemodialysis while she searched for a living donor.

“My cousin Grace stepped forward; she didn’t hesitate at all,” Schumacher said. “I am so grateful for her selflessness.”

Schumacher and her cousin, a hospice nurse who lives in Hawaii, were not an exact match, so like Hawbecker’s planned donation, Schumacher’s care team used the National Kidney Registry to find the best match.

Both Hawbecker and Schumacher underwent surgery at University Hospital in June 2023. Mezrich performed the laparoscopic surgery to remove one of Hawbecker’s kidneys for donation while Dr. Jon Odorico, surgical director of the UW Health Pancreas and Islet Cell Transplantation programs, performed Schumacher’s fourth kidney transplant.

“I have been seeing Liz as a patient for 30 years and she has been on a remarkable journey,” said Odorico, who is also a professor of surgery at UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “I am deeply impressed by her resilience and dedication to supporting other patients.”

While the women did not know they were recovering in the same hospital, Schumacher felt she knew her donor was nearby.

“I walked out of my room and saw a woman with vibrant red hair walking the halls and I instantaneously knew she was my donor,” she said.

Schumacher received confirmation months later after the staff at the UW Health Transplant Center helped the women exchange letters of introduction. The letters led to phone calls, texts and video chats, where the women got to know one another from a distance.

“I feel the best I have in a long time,” Schumacher said. “I am very fortunate to have both Shelley and Grace to thank for helping me enjoy many more years of good health. They both inspire me every day to live my best life and to make the best decisions for my life.”

Her renewed good health means she is making travel plans once again. In spring 2024, Schumacher spent three weeks visiting cities throughout Greece. Her patient advocacy work has continued with renewed vigor, especially for patients diagnosed with chronic kidney disease.

“Kidney disease is a huge burden for so many families,” she said. “I know firsthand that when you are on dialysis, it is the most incredible feeling to get a call that your transplant is going to happen.”

More than 100,000 Americans are waiting for an organ transplant; most of them are waiting for a new kidney. Sadly, 13 people die each day while waiting for a kidney transplant. Those statistics underscore the importance of living donation, something both women reflected on during their reunion at University Hospital.

“I will tell my donation story to anyone who will listen,” Hawbecker said. “I want more people to understand the process and inspire them to help a stranger, who could become a lifelong friend.”