When Gloria and Brandon Hall learned their newborn son would need a life-saving kidney transplant, they faced an impossible question: How do you ask another person to donate an organ to save your child?
Their answer came in the form of Taylor Pikkarainen, a 27-year-old registered nurse and distant family acquaintance. M Health Fairview experts determined that Taylor and Bodie were a matching donor-recipient pair using a new technology called epitope mapping and eplet matching. The sophisticated technique evaluates potential donors and recipients at a detailed, molecular level to ensure that the best-possible match is made.
“We’re very excited about the potential of eplet matching,” said M Health Fairview Transplant Surgeon Raja Kandaswamy, MD. “M Health Fairview is one of the few health systems in the country currently using the technology. It’s truly a leading-edge method.”
Bodie, now 20 months old, is the youngest of five children, including siblings Piper, Rowan, and twins Leo and London. More than six years ago, Gloria and Brandon’s daughter London got very ill. The Halls discovered she was suffering from congenital nephrotic syndrome, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your body discharges too much protein in urine. Genetic testing revealed that Gloria and Brandon both carried a recessive gene for the condition.
London needed a kidney transplant to save her life, and Gloria was a match. She donated one of her kidneys to her daughter. London’s transplant occurred at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Unfortunately, little Bodie was born with the same condition in 2018.
The family once again turned to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital for help. A team at the hospital cared for Bodie from birth, which enabled him to hang on until he grew big enough to receive a kidney transplant. This time, however, finding a match would be more difficult: Gloria couldn’t donate a second time, and Brandon wasn’t eligible either. The Hall family needed someone to come forward and volunteer.
“We were really worried about Bodie,” Gloria said. “But how can you ask someone to give up a kidney?”
Meanwhile, Taylor was on assignment caring for COVID-19 patients on the East Coast. She had heard about living donor transplants, and was intrigued by the possibility of saving someone’s life. When she heard through family members that a distant acquaintance – the Hall family – needed a donor for Bodie, Taylor decided to apply. She filled out a simple questionnaire, took blood tests, and went on with her life.
“I thought, ‘if it happens, it happens. What’s the harm in trying?’” Taylor said.
In June 2020, M Health Fairview Transplant Care experts began using epitope mapping and eplet matching to identify potential organ donor and recipient pairs. The technique involves a complex molecular review – a process that is far more sophisticated than traditional methods. Doctors like Kandaswamy hope it will lead to better matches, which may improve long-term outcomes and reduce the amount of anti-rejection medicine that transplant recipients need.
“Eplet matching pairs donors and recipients at the molecular level. Matching eplets to a high degree is an independent predictor of transplant success, even if the tissue type match isn’t great,” said Kandaswamy. “We are exploring new frontiers of medicine, in terms of matching donors with recipients.”
The epitope mapping and eplet matching process found that Taylor was the best match for Bodie out of many possible donors. On July 9, 2020 – Taylor’s birthday – she celebrated by giving then 18-month-old Bodie one of her kidneys. The two were one of the first eplet-matched pairs to undergo a transplant procedure at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
The minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery went well, and a well-concealed incision reduced visible scarring. Taylor’s recovery was made easier by the heartwarming updates she received from the Hall family as Bodie also recovered. Several months post-transplant, Bodie is doing great.
“His color is better, he has much more energy, and every week he’s learning new things,” Gloria said.
Taylor’s advice to people interested in learning more about donation? Simple: educate yourself.
“Helping someone else and saving a little boy’s life – it wasn’t even a ‘think twice’ situation,” Taylor said. “I kept moving forward with each step. I never wondered if it was the right thing to do.”
Gloria, a living kidney donor herself and the mother of two kidney transplant recipients, agrees. “It’s helpful to talk to someone who has done it. It’s comforting to know that you can go on to live a normal life, and it’s an amazing feeling to know that you saved someone’s life.”