• Sharing Mayo Clinic

    New friendship cemented with kidney donation

Melissa Blevins and Risa Simon

Melissa Blevins, administrator for the Transplant Center and Living Donor Programs at Mayo Clinic’s campus in Arizona, knew that one day she’d be an organ donor.

Her epiphany occurred 15 years ago. She was working as nurse transplant coordinator and, one night, two pediatric patients died. “One needed a transplant. The parents of the other ill child hadn’t given donation consent,” she says. “The death of the baby who needed a transplant seemed so unnecessary.”

That night, Blevins says she became an ardent organ donation proponent. In 2010, Blevins became a donor. The catalyst and recipient was Risa Simon, a consultant and professional speaker who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Simon, 55, has polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys. PKD leads to progressive loss of kidney function. As the disease worsens, end-stage kidney failure may occur, requiring kidney dialysis or a transplant.

Simon’s father had the disease and died in his early 40s. Her brother also has PKD. Simon was diagnosed in her 20s.

“I thought if I took care of myself and ate right and stayed in shape I could prevent the disease from progressing,” says Simon. But a healthy lifestyle didn’t stop the disease. By 2008, she realized that in the not too distant future she would face either dialysis or transplant. She wanted to be proactive before her health worsened, and she wanted to become an inspirational advocate for others in need. This motivation prompted her to find ways to reach out.

Simon founded Kidney Kinships, (kidneykinships.org), an organization to educate potential donors and recipients about living kidney donations. Her key message is, “You don’t have to be dead to donate.” And, her mantra to those who need a kidney is, “You have the power to design your destiny.”

As a result of her efforts, potential donors came forward. Twenty-four said they would consider donating a kidney to Simon, but none worked out.

Late in 2009, Simon met with Blevins to learn more about Mayo Clinic’s transplant programs. “We had an immediate connection and shared a passion about organ donation,” says Simon.

That passion led to fast friendship. Six months after they met, Blevins told Simon she wanted to give her a kidney. Simon says the offer took her breath away. “Her gesture was so generous and selfless,” says Simon. “Her gift was in the offer alone.”

Tests showed they were a close genetic match — as close as siblings. “I’d had a gut feeling we’d be a match,” says Blevins. “We’re kindred spirits.”

The transplant occurred in June 2010. Blevins’ kidney was removed laparoscopically, a minimally invasive procedure. She recovered from the surgery within four weeks.

Simon, whose health is thriving, nicknamed her new kidney MAK — Melissa’s Amazing Kidney. “Melissa is family now,” she says. “With this gift, she became the epitome of ambassadorship for pre-emptive transplant through her own living kidney donation.”

Blevins says donating a kidney is a highlight of her life. “I have watched the miracle of organ donation from a clinical and professional perspective for years,” she says. “I knew the experience would be great, but I didn’t know how great.”

Why wait 15 years to donate? “I think it took me a while because I was waiting to meet Risa,” she says. “She’s such a wonderful person and my friend for life.”

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