Chelsey Larson sat with her roommates at their off-campus house at the University of Minnesota as they learned the tragic news: Their new roommate had suffered kidney failure and was living on dialysis.
It was the spring of 2013 and Ellen Rorman, a fellow student, had been subleasing from Larson and her roommates for the semester. Rorman was new to the group. She had lived with a chronic kidney condition since birth. When she was 18, she received her first kidney transplant from her aunt. But the day after her 21st birthday, doctors told Rorman her body had rejected the organ.
Her roommates first learned of Rorman’s health issues from a Facebook post. They were all sad and sympathetic, but Larson was driven a different kind of emotion. Two years earlier, Larson’s own aunt donated a kidney to a stranger. Inspired by this family example, she knew she had to try donating a kidney to Rorman, even though they were only acquaintances at the time.
“I felt something special in my heart. I knew in that moment that this was happening for a reason and that I would give Ellen my kidney eventually,” Larson said.
Larson approached Rorman with her idea, but Rorman’s doctor wanted to keep her on dialysis to improve her health for a time before pursuing a donation. Eventually, Larson and Rorman moved out, drifted apart and didn’t discuss the donation for over a year.
Then one night, Larson saw a local news story highlighting Rorman’s struggles. Immediately, she went to the University of Minnesota Health kidney donation website and began the living donor screening process.
There are roughly 101,000 people across the United States waiting for kidney donors, according to the National Kidney Foundation. But in 2014, only roughly 5,500 living donors stepped forward to give the gift of a renewed life. On average, recipients of a donated organ must wait roughly 3 ½ years for a donation.
To become a living organ donor like Larson, patients have to go through a screening and a series of tests to ensure they are healthy enough to donate and are compatible.
When screening patients, physicians will test for things like blood type and examine their compatibility with recipients, but they also have to look for a whole host of other factors, including the health of the donor said University of Minnesota Health Nephrologist and Transplant Physician Richard Spong, MD.
There are some slight risks associated with donating, but they’re rare and—because of intensive pre-surgery testing—the majority of kidney donations are successful and free of complications.
Rorman was at dialysis with her mother when her physician, University of Minnesota Health Nephrologist Sarah Elfering, MD, announced they had found a suitable potential donor: Rorman’s former roommate, Chelsey Larson.
“We were both picking our jaws up off the floor at that point,” Rorman said. “It’s one thing to say you’ll do it, but it’s another thing to follow through on it, especially for an acquaintance. I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing person.’”
Several months later, Larson and Rorman underwent the transplant surgery at University of Minnesota Medical Center. Six weeks after the procedure, life was back to “normal,” Larson said.
She’s not alone. The vast majority of those who have donated have reported quality of life that is higher than someone who is comparable to them in age and sex but have not donated, Spong said. One study Spong cited shows that 99 percent of donors would donate again.
Today, Larson is living in Colorado and volunteering with the American Transplant Foundation. She’s working to help raise money for donors and recipients who need financial assistance while recovering from surgery and she wants to increase awareness about donating.
“If people don’t know anybody that went through a transplant, it’s a very scary thing,” Larson said. “I feel like my purpose now is to show others that you can do this and you can save a life and still live a perfectly normal and healthy life.”
The surgery forever changed Rorman’s life, and she will always be grateful for Larson’s choice.
“Chelsey’s selfless decision to do this for me has given me a chance,” Rorman said. The transplant gave Rorman freedom to go on weeklong vacations, enjoy a weekend without worrying about dialysis, and eat her favorite food, buffalo wings, once more.
“It really has given me a future; it’s given me the opportunity to live the life I’ve wanted to live,” she said.