When Bonnie Roe-Howell and Craig Pittman reconnected at a high school reunion in 2012, they couldn’t have known that the chance encounter would lead to a life-saving kidney transplant four years later.
The pair became friends while attending White Bear Lake’s Mariner High School, and graduated one year apart: Pittman in 1975, and Roe-Howell in 1976. But they lost touch after school and hadn’t spoken in decades. That changed when a group of former students organized an all-classes reunion for Mariner, which was only open for a limited time before it merged with another school.
“At the event, we shared a ‘hi, how are you, what’s life been like’ conversation,” Pittman recalled. Following the reunion, they added one another as friends on Facebook. It was there, months later, that Pittman saw a surprising message: Roe-Howell was searching for a kidney donor.
Roe-Howell was born with a spasmodic bladder that caused kidney reflux, which in turn caused chronic kidney infections. Starting at age 2, she underwent several surgeries at the University of Minnesota to correct the reflux problem, though the solutions were always temporary. In 1985, she received another surgery—a bladder reconstruction. The reconstruction resolved the reflux issue, but by then the infection had already caused irreversible damage to her kidneys.
“I always knew someday my kidneys would fail. For me, it was a matter of watching my [kidney function numbers] decline, and doing what I could to slow the pace,” Roe-Howell said.
Roe-Howell’s kidneys began a more pronounced decline in 2009, and the family began researching transplant options. In 2012, a lifelong friend volunteered to be Roe-Howell’s living kidney donor. The friend received testing but was not a compatible match. During the testing process, Roe-Howell discovered she had a very high antibody count due to previous blood transfusions, making it significantly more difficult for her to find compatible potential donors. The discovery prompted Roe-Howell and her family to begin extensive donor campaign so they could improve her odds. They handed out cards, hung posters, put magnetic signs on vehicles, built a website—and of course used social media to broadcast messages.
Roe-Howell didn’t mention her health issues in 2012 when she spoke with Pittman during the high school reunion. But her Facebook campaign months later motivated Pittman to take action.
“I’ve always checked the organ donor box on my driver’s license, but I had never given any thought to being a living donor for someone,” Pittman said. “But once the ball got rolling, I was very determined.”
Pittman underwent testing. Though he wasn’t a direct match for Roe-Howell, he agreed to become part of a paired kidney exchange on her behalf.
A paired exchange allows would-be recipients with willing yet incompatible donors to match up with other donor-recipient pairs in the same situation. After two pairs are matched with each other, they “swap” kidneys—each living donor gives a kidney to the other recipient in the other pair. The exchanges “lower the bar” for people in need of a living donor by improving the likelihood of a match.
By early 2016, Roe-Howell’s declining kidney function affected every aspect of her life. She experienced extreme fatigue, her skin turned grey, and “brain fog” made it hard for her to think.
“I used to say that I had cement blocks on my feet, because it felt like I had two tons on each foot whenever when I had to lift my feet to walk,” Roe Howell said.
Because of her unique transplant needs and her fluctuating health, the team was unable to find a compatible donor through the paired exchange program until mid-2016.
But without the program, Roe-Howell would likely have been waiting for a much longer time, said University of Minnesota Health Transplant Surgeon Ty Dunn, MD, MS. The fact that she was able to acquire a donor faster through the program was critical for Roe-Howell, Dunn said. Any longer and she would likely have had to begin dialysis to augment her poor kidney function.
“This was a just-in-time transplant. She couldn’t wait any longer,” Dunn said.
On July 12, 2016, received a phone call: The University of Minnesota Health transplant team had found a potentially compatible living donor.
Roe-Howell traveled to Minnesota from her home in South Carolina. Six days after the phone call, Roe-Howell began pre-transplant testing. After receiving notice, Pittman also traveled to Minnesota from his former home in Arizona. Roe-Howell chose University of Minnesota Health because of our center’s deep understanding of her medical history and the extensive connections the M Health transplant program has with other paired exchange programs across the country.
“It was my first meeting with Dr. Dunn and the living donor transplant team that convinced me that University of Minnesota Health offered the best chance for a near-impossible match like me,” Roe Howell said. “I really felt like I was in the hands of a first-class operation, and when all you’ve been running on for a couple of years is ‘hope,’ it makes all the difference in the world to believe again.”
Because the transplant was scheduled in advance, the University of Minnesota Health team was able to work with Roe-Howell more than a week before the surgery to better prepare her body to accept the donor organ. It’s a luxury they wouldn’t have had without a living donor for Roe-Howell, Dunn said.
On July 21, Roe-Howell and Pittman participated in a six-person kidney donation “chain” along with several other donors and recipients. Pittman’s kidney went to a compatible recipient in Ohio, while Roe-Howell received her organ from another donor in Minnesota.
Though Roe-Howell’s recovery was long, over the past several months she has slowly regained a semblance of normality. Her energy levels have increased, and her skin color has returned to its ordinary tone.
“I could only give myself two hours a day before having to lie down, but sometimes I can go four or five hours at a time now,” she said. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all who helped, to those who came forward to be tested, and to those who agreed to enter into the paired exchange—even if it meant waiting for a long time to find a compatible match. And Craig, being an old school mate, just made it all that more special.”
Though Pittman struggled with an infection after the surgery, he rebounded to full health later that summer.
“If I could, I would certainly would do it again,” he said. “The gratitude of Bonnie, her husband, children and parents was very overwhelming to me and really made me realize how dire things had been. It's a unique and humbling feeling to know that I helped give her more time to spend with her family.”