Donating a kidney to a family member or friend is an extraordinary act of compassion. So, how do you describe the enormous kind-heartedness of Nancy Cabrellis?
She donated a kidney anonymously to a complete stranger. She had no idea who would get it or what their life was like. In essence, it was like casting a piece of her body into the river of medicine, trusting, without any detail, that it will land in the right place to help someone – with no guarantee she would ever know the result.
“Why wouldn’t I do it?” said Cabrellis, who had a kidney removed and transplanted into someone she did not know at the UC Davis Medical Center. The team was led by Junichiro Sageshima, surgical director of the Living Donor Kidney Transplant Program.
“If I can improve someone else’s quality of life, or maybe save their life, it’s just the right thing to do,” Cabrellis said.
Kimber Simmons, a nurse and Living Donor Transplant Coordinator in the Transplant Center, sees it a little differently. “Nancy is just an amazing person,” Simmons said. “It took a bit of time for her to get through the evaluation process and she hung in there. She felt so strongly about helping somebody out there.”
It’s the idea of blindly helping “somebody out there” that stands out, despite Cabrellis’ insistence that it’s no big deal. It’s also a story of her resilience and unassuming determination to help.
Cabrellis first offered to donate a kidney in 2013. It would have gone to her mother-in-law, who was in advanced stage renal failure. “When I heard about that, I volunteered,” Cabrellis said. “I wanted to help.”
Cabrellis blood type is O positive, the universal donor. Nonetheless, after evaluations, she wasn’t a match with her mother-in-law for other reasons, so they entered the Transplant Center’s paired donor program, which in some circles is called a kidney swap.
That’s when a donor and potential recipient who don’t match are connected with another donor-recipient pair to create compatible matches of blood types and other factors. Both recipients get kidneys, just not from the person they know. Sometimes this becomes a chain that includes three or more pairs.
The UC Davis Transplant Team is expert at this. It’s one of the top transplant centers in America – in 2016, doctors there performed 402 kidney transplants, the most among the 250 transplant centers in the U.S. In 2019, a relatively slower year because the team was down one physician, they still performed 211 transplants, 67 from living donors.
The complication in the process is that the pairs or chain can take months to fill out compatibly.
Cabrellis' mother-in-law was seriously ill and doctors ruled her out for a transplant. She remained on dialysis until she passed away this year. In the meantime, Cabrellis began thinking she could help someone else.
“I saw what my mother-in-law went through,” Cabrellis said. “I thought maybe I could help someone else so they wouldn’t have to suffer the way she did.”
That step – donating anonymously to a stranger – is a huge one. Cabrellis kept thinking about it for more than a year.
“It was weighing on me,” she said. “Things would pop up, like on the news, that would remind me. I saw on someone’s car they wrote, ‘I need a kidney.’ I decided to reach out to the hospital to see if I could do it even though I didn’t have someone in mind.”
The transplant team began working to match Cabrellis and place her in a chain, and to evaluate her for any possible health issues. Some small ones popped up.
“Usually the evaluation stage takes three months the longest,” Simmons said. “With Nancy, it took a year. She never wavered. She was determined to help someone. We finally called her to say all was good and that we’d found a chain. She was so excited. It turned out that was on the day her mother-in-law passed away.”
“That felt like a very good sign,” Cabrellis said. “She passed in the morning and Kimber called me in the afternoon. I was a bit numb but said definitely yes.”
Cabrellis is a 25-year employee of PG&E, and Cabrellis told her supervisor she would be out for six weeks. She didn’t really think to tell her colleagues exactly why, except to say she was taking a short medical leave.
“My supervisor said, “If you’re not going to share it, can I?” Cabrellis said.
After the surgery, her supervisor sent Cabrellis’ PG&E colleagues an email to commemorate Random Acts of Kindness Week. “One of our own,” the email said, “just committed the ultimate random act of kindness.”
The surgery went well for Cabrellis and for the recipient. Her kidney will be part of a three-transplant chain with the other two surgeries scheduled for June. She does not know who got her kidney, except that he’s male. She’s curious but understands the rules.
“Usually when it’s anonymous, it’s up to the recipient to decide if he wants to meet me,” Cabrellis said. “I did get to find out that he’s doing fine, and they told me he asked how his donor is doing, too. So this seems right. We’re checking in on each other.”