Living kidney donation

Jess meets her kidney recipient

Woman wearing a shirt that says, "Dude, where's my kidney?" standing next to man wearing a shirt that says, "Kidney thief."
Jess Neff and Sawn Abernathy

When Jess Neff agreed to be part of the paired kidney donor process, she had her sights set on helping her nephew, Josiah, who desperately needed a new kidney. She never dreamed that in addition to saving Josiah’s life, she would help a friend of a friend who also needed a kidney.

This is how the paired kidney donation process works: If a person who needs a transplant can find a living donor, that donor can help them even if their kidney isn’t a direct match. The two become part of a “kidney chain” in which the recipient receives a stranger’s kidney, and the donor donates their kidney to another stranger.

In Jess’s case, while she was healthy enough to donate a kidney, she wasn’t a match for Josiah. So, they joined the paired kidney donor registry, received a call about a month later with a surgery date, and prepared to enter the hospital on the same day—May 18, 2023. “My nephew just wanted to feel better,” said Jess. “This was taking his life away from him. I never imagined there was the possibility of this donation having an effect on anyone but us.”

A day after her donation, Jess, who lives in Racine, Wisconsin, posted on Facebook how grateful she was for the process and the doctors at the UW Health Transplant Center. A former co-worker commented that she had a friend who had just received a kidney transplant at UW Health the previous day. “I said, ‘Well, maybe they got mine!’” Jess said.

It turns out they did.

In search of a miracle

Shawn Abernathy, who lives in Union Grove, Wisconsin, started experiencing kidney problems at age 35. Kidney failure was not new to his family—his father’s kidneys had stopped working several years before and Shawn’s aunt donated a kidney to her brother, but there were no more spare kidneys in his family for Shawn.

By spring 2022, Shawn’s kidneys were only functioning at 10% and he was often in the hospital. He was on the wait list for a new kidney at another transplant center in Milwaukee, but caregivers there told him he would probably have to wait four to five years for a transplant. An acquaintance told him his best bet was to pursue dual listing at UW Health.

Shawn met with the caregivers at UW Health in November 2022, and in March 2023, he got on the active wait list for a kidney from a deceased donor. He was quite surprised, then, when he received a phone call on May 5 that there was a kidney for him, and his surgery would be May 18. He learned that there was a kidney chain of living donors that had an extra kidney available—and it was going to him. “I felt like I was hitting the lottery, getting a living donor,” he said. “It was a miracle for me.”

Shawn and Jess learned about each other after their respective surgeries, and then mutually decided that they and their families should meet. Jess wore a T-shirt that read, “Dude, where’s my kidney?” and gave him one that read “Kidney thief.”

“There’s nothing I can do in the world to show her how much I appreciate this,” Shawn said. “She was helping her nephew, but it in turn saved my life.”