Living Kidney Donation: Robert's Story
When friends and acquaintances ask Robert Gudea why he decided to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger, he is momentarily stumped. “The ‘why’ question never occurred to me,” he says. “Somebody needed help, and I was in a position where I could help. There’s no explanation for it.”
Robert, 27, first began considering kidney donation shortly after meeting his wife, Jennifer, when they were both serving in the Peace Corps in Rwanda. Jennifer needed a medical evacuation because she had a kidney infection. She was able to recover from the infection without needing a kidney transplant, but the incident made a deep impact on Robert, who spent time talking with Jennifer’s doctors about transplantation and whether he would be a suitable donor.
Even after they got married and started work on their respective graduate programs, he couldn’t get the idea of kidney donation out of his mind. He was adopted at age 7 from an orphanage in Romania and has no contact with any biological family members, so he knew there wasn’t a chance that he would be able to donate to a family member. That meant he had a kidney that was free for the taking, so to speak. In 2016, he underwent testing at University Hospital in Madison and began working with nurse transplant coordinator Kathy Schappe to determine how his kidney could best be used.
Non-directed donors such as Robert often can start paired kidney exchanges — a chain of people whose loved ones are not direct matches, but who can donate to others in need of a kidney transplant. In Robert’s case, however, Jennifer would be out of the country for some of the next year, and he would need to focus on his graduate studies for another chunk of the next year. Paired kidney exchanges involve very precise timing, which meant he wouldn’t have much control over when his donation took place. He and Kathy decided he would simply donate his kidney to a single recipient so he could schedule his surgery on the day he chose —August 10, 2016. He asked his doctor for a picture of his kidney before it was transported to the recipient. “I get really excited about stuff like that,” he says.
Robert is now hard at work finishing his thesis for his master of science degree in environment and resources at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He doesn’t know much about his kidney recipient, but he and Jennifer did receive a card from a couple who said they were able to get married because of his donation. “We were really happy that we made such a difference for this couple,” he says.