Janey Young is a self-described cheerleader. For the past nine years, she has encouraged her patients waiting for kidney transplants as a waitlist administrative assistant in the Kidney Transplant Center at UC Davis Health.
“I tell them, ‘You can do this. Just stay healthy and hold on a little longer,’” Young said. “So, when my brother-in-law was diagnosed with kidney failure, I decided that I wanted to donate my kidney to him.”
Unfortunately, he lives in Greece and international transplant laws prevented it. Then she tried to donate to a cousin in England, but that country has different allocation laws. Those opportunities ended, but Young’s desire to donate the gift of life did not.
“I realized how much I wanted to do this. I just didn’t know who I wanted to do it for,” she explained.
Making a connection
Then, one day, while checking in on one of her transplant waitlist patients, the ‘who’ came into focus.
“Daunell and I had first bonded over our dogs in 2019. I heard a dog barking in the background of our phone call and learned all about Mousse, her German Shorthaired Pointer,” Young recalled. “He was old and had multiple health issues, just like my Old English Sheepdog Mini. Both our dogs died that October.”
“I knew that Janey had another elderly dog at home who might benefit from Mousse’s harnesses and mobility aids, so, I sent them to her,” added Daunell Salvador.
Those dog gadgets helped Young stretch out and improve her dog Monty’s life until January of this year.
“I suddenly got to thinking. This lady takes such good care of her dog. She’d really take care of a kidney,” said Young. “It was almost like one night, boom, divine intervention. This is what you should do.”
Then Young alerted her colleagues in the living donor transplant office to start the process.
Focusing on survival
Salvador was unaware of Young’s intention. Her focus was on survival. She had lived with polycystic kidney disease (PKD) since the age of 30 and its devastating realities since birth.
“I was 18 when my mother died of PKD on dialysis while waiting for a transplant. I was devastated,” Salvador recalled. “When I got diagnosed, I thought I would have to live it over again. I just figured the same thing would happen to me.”
Despite living a clean, healthy lifestyle, Salvador’s kidney function dropped. She was forced to go on home dialysis in May 2020.
“I live alone, so it was all up to me,” she said. “I filled, emptied and refilled dialysis fluid every three hours every single day. It was all consuming.”
Meanwhile, Young completed the necessary paperwork, underwent the required medical evaluation and prepared to follow through on an extraordinary act of kindness. Once health officials and the UC Davis bioethics team signed off, Young shared the news with Salvador.
“It was the farthest thing from my mind. Disbelief, excitement and thoughts of a better life reeled through my mind,” Salvador said. “More pronounced however, which I voiced to Janey, was a deep concern for her having to go through this process for me.”
Despite those initial reservations, on Thanksgiving Day 2020, Salvador left UC Davis Medical Center with one of Young’s kidneys and a new outlook on life.
“Janey took that dialysis and threw it out the window for me. Now I don’t have to live a life of confinement,” Salvador said. “I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the whole world.”
Donating a life
In 2020, the UC Davis Health transplant center surgeons performed 352 kidney transplants, the seventh highest volume in the country. Only 42 were from living donors.
“For many patients with end-stage kidney disease, a living donor kidney transplant is the best treatment option. But unfortunately, only a small number of patients have a matched donor,” said Junichiro Sageshima, surgical director for the Living Donor Kidney Transplant Program at UC Davis Health. “We are inspired by people who are willing to donate their kidneys, even to strangers. We are very fortunate to be able to support donors in this noble and selfless act.”
National Donate Life Month was established by Donate Life America and its partnering organizations in 2003. Observed in April each year, National Donate Life Month helps to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors and to honor those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.
Stephanie Baroni, one of two living donor coordinators at UC Davis Health, celebrates the moment when donor and recipient match.
“What I notice about donors is the human connection between a donor and recipient. For Janey and Daunell, it was over their dogs,” Baroni explained. “They develop something so powerful and so profound. For donors, that connection and the desire to help are the beaming light that guides them through the process.”
Writing a new chapter
More than three months after the surgery, Salvador looks ahead to a new future. Young continues to encourage others to donate a life.
“I would do it again, but I can’t grow kidneys. I can only do it once,” Young joked.
“It’s hard to describe the freedom she gave me and the chance to make a new start. I am forever grateful,” Salvador added. “I’d lived this story my whole life. Now I can put that chapter on the shelf and start a new book.”