Kara Allen has a motto she tries to live by daily: “I want to leave the world, empty with everything I’ve been able to give.”
For Alejandro "Alex" Alvarado of Highland, Allen did just that — giving him more than he could ever imagine: a kidney.
Although many organ donations take place after a tragedy occurs, Allen had the opportunity to be a living donor, continuing her quest to make a difference in the world while providing Alvarado with the opportunity to regain his health.
While living donor cases typically occur between friends and family members, this case was unique. The two had never met.
Some might say their paths crossing was serendipitous. For Alvarado and Allen, they say it was the beginning of something that would forever connect them.
A push for a donor
As director of operations and IT at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Alvarado mostly held a “desk job,” he says. He would help his team with moving items when needed, but his job typically did not involve physical activity.
A few years ago, when the museum was shorthanded, he began helping his team members move around chairs and tables more often. Over time, his colleagues noticed a change in him.
“My co-workers let me know, ‘You used to pick up those chairs and tables like it was nothing, and now you struggle,’” the now 34-year-old recalled. “My energy was at zero. I would get home and my girlfriend and kids would want to do something, and I didn’t want to do anything.”
When Alvarado’s ankles began swelling, he says his girlfriend convinced him to go to the emergency room. It was there that doctors told him his kidneys weren’t filtering his blood correctly.
Alvarado began dialysis treatments, which removed excess water and toxins from his blood — a function his kidneys were no longer doing naturally.
“I was on dialysis three times a week like clockwork sitting in the chair for four hours,” he said.
His name was added to the transplant waiting list, where it remained for more than two years.
“The list is very extensive, with a wait of at least six to eight years,” Alvarado said. “I was only registered in Illinois, but was about to start looking in other states as well.”
That’s when he decided to try something different in an effort to find a living donor.
“I started a social media campaign,” he said. “I was pushing it out there to anyone who would listen. I did Instagram, Facebook and had some media attention in Chicago.”
Chicago author Eve Ewing, who Alvarado had met through his job, shared one of his Instagram posts.
A plan put into motion
Allen was scrolling her Instagram feed late one night.
“I saw a story from a professor and author here in Chicago, Eve Ewing, and she posted a story about Alex,” the now 37-year-old said.
The thought of donating a kidney didn’t first appear when she saw his story, however.
Allen, CEO of Umoja, an organization that builds social-emotional learning skills in Chicagoland educators, says for years she had considered donating one of her kidneys and had begun the process of becoming a living donor.
“I had wanted to be a donor for many years,” she said. “I remember talking to my dad and I let him know that I’m going to be donating my kidney. He said no, and I said yes. He just looked at me and asked what I needed.”
When Allen saw Alvarado’s story, she realized they shared the same birthday.
“I spend a lot of time making really hard, big decisions, but I also really trust instinct and my gut,” Allen said. “We had the same birthday, and that was enough to say 'this is something I should follow.'”
She messaged Alvarado about her interest in getting tested to see if she was a match. Alvarado gave her the contact information for his transplant team, and Allen took it from there.
“I wanted to donate to this human, but knew if we weren’t a match, I could still donate to another human,” she said.
At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, the donation process began with blood work, urine samples and a lot of meetings with medical staff to ensure she was clear on what the donor process would entail.
When Allen discovered she and Alvarado were a match, she says she was elated.
“It just had a different feeling to it when you know a little about his story,” she said. “It changed everything for me.”
In the months leading up to the surgery, she says even everyday actions took on additional meaning.
“I was so much more intentional about what I ate,” she said.
Yet she never wavered from her plan.
“I have two kidneys and both work well,” she said. “Someone needs what I have, so why would I not give it to him? It was that simple to me.”
On March 31, the kidney transplant surgery took place.
Unbeknownst to either of them, their hospital rooms were next to each other.
A new beginning
Today, Alvarado has a functioning kidney and no longer has to undergo dialysis.
“Before the transplant, I was a walking zombie,” he said. “I had no energy. My appetite wasn’t the greatest. I would be thirsty, but I couldn’t drink anything because I was on fluid restrictions. Even on my days off from dialysis, I was very lifeless. Fortunately now it’s the complete opposite. I’m born again. My kids want to be outside all the time and I can actually be out there running around with them.”
Allen has recovered as well, and says she lives a normal life.
“It was an honor,” she says. “There were certain things after any kind of surgery that you had to be careful of, like not lifting anything heavy for a few weeks, and things you needed to be cautious about, like not driving right away. Truly I think the fear of the unknown was so much greater than the reality of the truth.”
Brittany Hohoff, a transplant nurse coordinator at Rush University Medical Center, says kidney transplants that come from living donors typically occur between two people who know each other. With the prevalence of social media, however, she says some cases involve two people connecting over the web, while others are considered altruistic donors, or those who wish to donate a kidney but do not have an intended recipient.
For altruistic donors, the process of donating a kidney begins with an education session, followed by a four-week cooling period to ensure any decisions are well thought out and not impulsive.
Those donating a kidney to a loved one do not have to go through the four-week cooling off period, however.
“For the altruistic person, there isn’t a bond that exists, which is why we have the cooling off period,” Hohoff said.
The testing process then begins and includes three phases: bloodwork, 24-hour urine collection and a follow-up with the medical staff to finish up any further testing needed.
“They’re then presented to a committee for approval and then we start scheduling the surgery,” Hohoff said.
During this process, both the donor and recipient receive extensive support from a multidisciplinary team, she says. Living donors also are provided with their own advocates.
Additional resources include transplant psychiatrists, pharmacy and nutrition support, financial counselors and a transplant nephrology consultant.
“I’ll be their main contact person and will refer them to other support if needed,” Hohoff said.
Because the average wait time for a deceased donor kidney can be several years, transplant teams often encourage patients to look for living donors or for anyone who is considering becoming a donor to reach out to the National Kidney Registry.
“You don’t have to be related to the person,” Hohoff said. “That’s the nice thing about these stories.”
Another serendipitous moment
At a follow-up appointment a few weeks after the surgery occurred, Allen says she was surprised to find out that Alvarado was there as well for lab work — another serendipitous moment.
“I never thought I would meet him,” she said. “It wasn’t part of the process for me, so when they said Alex would like to meet you, it was a whole new range of emotions.”
When Allen walked into the room, Alvarado struggled to hold back tears.
“I told myself, ‘I’m not going to cry,’” he said. “She walked in, and I couldn’t see her through the mask, but I could tell she was smiling from her eyes. It was like an angel walked in the room, literally. It was an amazing feeling.”
Both parents of two, Allen and Alvarado say they plan to attend a White Sox game together with their families this summer. They also plan to celebrate their next birthday together in July.
“There aren’t words strong enough to be able to describe meeting someone who gets to come alive again,” Allen said. “This human gets to thrive and to be a dad and be a human in the world. And I got to be some small part of it. I believe in leaving this world, empty with everything I’ve been able to give, and I mean that — me taking less, so he got something more.”
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