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Joe Conlin likes to joke that the real reason he donated one of his kidneys to a stranger was because he wanted the free polo shirt all living kidney donors receive from the UW Health Transplant Center.
Well, that and the cozy fleece blanket he also received—swag that makes undergoing a major surgery to help someone else well worth it.
All kidding aside, Joe, now 74, doesn’t consider his gift of life to be especially notable in the grand scheme of things. “There was nothing glorious or heroic about it,” he said. “I’ve always considered myself pretty fortunate—I’ve been blessed with good health. I could do it, so I did it.”
It’s remarkable that Joe chose to donate a kidney. But it’s even more remarkable that, several years later, his wife Judy, 73, decided to follow in his footsteps and give the same gift.
Joe had started thinking about donating a kidney in his mid-50s, but Medicare laws at that time would have made any complications a pre-existing condition, so he waited. By the time he retired from teaching at age 62, laws had changed and he no longer needed to worry about not being covered under Medicare.
The procedure was relatively simple for him—all he needed to control the pain after surgery was Tylenol. A few days later, he even had Judy drive them to Florida to visit their relative.
Judy was interested in donating a kidney but feared what would happen if she gave away one of her kidneys, and later, someone in her own family needed a transplant. In that situation, too, time was on her side—by the time she started seriously thinking about kidney donation a couple years ago, the National Kidney Registry was allowing living non-directed donors to name up to five people who would receive priority listing should they need a transplant.
Judy’s donation was a bit more complicated than Joe’s because it was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and so Joe couldn’t stay with her at the hospital. But she said everything went smoothly. “In the hospital, they were very, very good,” she said. “In both our situations, they made sure they monitored our pain. Even the people who came in to clean our rooms were thoughtful and considerate.”
Joe has not officially connected with the person who received his kidney, but Judy, who is also a retired educator, received a thank-you note from her recipient. Both of them take great pride in knowing that their gift has allowed someone else to have a second chance at life. “The amount of discomfort we had compared to the relief they get when they receive the kidney is worth the trade-off,” Joe said.
The Conlins have become inspirations for other people they know—a good friend first considered donating a kidney because of them, and went through with it in 2022.
In the meantime, Joe and Judy are living their best lives with no physical limitations due to the surgery. They hiked the Grand Canyon last fall and continue to go on many other post-retirement adventures. “Our health has not stopped us from doing anything,” Judy said.