Kidney Transplant: It’s a Family Affair

Three years ago, Joe Mazzatta, 56, lost one kidney to renal cancer only to have his second kidney fail a few days later. He was immediately put on dialysis and found that very limiting. “I was angry and depressed,” he remembers. He found the dialysis procedure limiting and exhausting and continued to experience high blood pressure.

image description Remembering the early days after his kidney transplant, Joe says “I felt good right away.” He’s thankful his stepdaughter and kidney donor (right) was there for him.

Flash forward three years to November 2018 and Joe has seen little improvement. Dialysis still was not working well, his blood pressure remained high and he was in and out of the hospital. The silver lining was he remained cancer-free, which qualified him as a candidate for a kidney transplant — if only there was a matching donor.

No one in Joe’s immediate family volunteered to donate, and his wife, Roxanne wasn’t a match. As he and Roxanne puzzled over how to find a donor, the answer walked in the door. Roxanne’s daughter, Samantha (Sam) Noll, 24, who used to work as a scrub tech with Virginia Mason’s urology team, volunteered to donate a kidney without hesitation.

“We were so happy and proud of Sam,” Roxanne recalls. “It was such a generous offer, but we weren’t sure Sam would match since she isn’t a blood relation.” But Sam surprised everyone and was a perfect match.

Once Sam and Joe were accepted in the program, they had several hurdles ahead. First there was evaluation day, when Joe and Sam were interviewed and examined separately by their nephrologists and transplant team for any health risks that might eliminate either of them from the procedure. Then they both had blood tests, an electrocardiogram (ECG), a chest X-ray and abdominal ultrasound.

“Every time Sam met with anyone involved in the transplant — doctors, counselors, nurses, you name it — they all asked Sam if she was doing this voluntarily,” Roxanne remembers. “And they told her they would ask her again when she was in the operating room, just before the surgery. They wanted to be sure that she wasn’t under any pressure to donate.”

When Sam was a scrub tech at Virginia Mason, she worked with urologist and transplant surgeon Paul Kozlowski, MD, and also was familiar with transplant surgeon Christian Kuhr, MD. “I knew how skilled and thorough both doctors are,” Sam says. “I understood the process and knew that with Dr. Kozlowski and Dr. Kuhr leading the surgery teams, we would be in good hands.”

“The care at Virginia Mason is amazing,” Joe says. “They anticipated what we needed before we knew we needed it.”

When a kidney is transplanted from a live donor there are two surgical teams: one for the recipient and one for the donor. During a kidney transplant the teamwork Virginia Mason is well-known for the way the two surgical teams communicate and are synchronized: one to successfully harvest the high-functioning organ from Sam, and one to implant the healthy new kidney into Joe.

Joe received his new kidney in January 2019. “I felt good right away,” Joe enthuses. “My blood pressure improved immediately. The only discomfort I felt was at the incision. The next morning I got up and walked to Sam’s room to see how she was doing. It’s always harder for the donor,” he adds.

Sam stayed a few days longer than Joe in the hospital, which is common. There have been some adjustments for her, but she doesn’t have any regrets. “The care at Virginia Mason is amazing,” Joe says. “They anticipated what we needed before we knew we needed it.” And Sam agrees, “That’s why we drive 65 miles each way for our appointments — Virginia Mason is the best.”

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