Living kidney donation: The ultimate gift from the ultimate stranger

Dec. 21, 2022
Kidney donor Chris Sullivan on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He climbed Africa's tallest peak with other kidney donors. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan.
Kidney donor Chris Sullivan on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. He climbed Africa’s tallest peak with other kidney donors. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan.

It was an epiphany. A flash of perfect clarity for Chris Sullivan on that night in February 2019 as he caught the end of a news clip while making dinner with his wife in their Ken Caryl home.

Yes. Of course. His decision was made without hesitation. He knew immediately what he must do. He would donate his kidney. To a family member? A loved one? A friend or acquaintance? No, to a stranger.

“I knew nothing about the process, and the idea of donating a kidney had never crossed my mind before. But a piece on TV that evening about the need for kidney donors got my attention, and it was like a light bulb going off. I looked at my wife and told her: ‘I am doing this.’”

Interested in donating a kidney

Chris didn’t waste any time. He headed to his computer and a few minutes later he completed a preliminary application on the UCHealth Living Donor website. He pressed the red “Become a living donor” button and breathed a sigh of satisfaction.

While he didn’t know it at the time, Chris had taken his first step on a trek that would speed up, slow down, come to a halt during COVID-19, resume and then take him from a hospital bed with one less kidney, to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro 18 months later with other kidney donors like himself.

“At no time did I ever look back,” said the 53-year-old sales management executive. “I was excited about it. The sense of giving. The sense of you saving a life that gives you a sense of well-being and satisfaction. I know that is true for me and so many other donors I have met.”

Healthy enough to donate

Becoming an altruistic donor – a person who donates a kidney to a stranger with advanced kidney disease on a national waitlist – did not come as a surprise for those who know Chris.

He is a high-energy endurance athlete, especially when it comes to outdoor events over tough terrain where he can push his body and spirit to the limit.  An adrenaline junkie, weekend warrior, expert skier, marathon runner, repeat triathlete, Ironman competitor and CrossFit coach, he’s one to scale the highest peak, swim the open water and navigate the bumpy obstacle course.

“My friends say I have two speeds: Mach 3 or off. I’m either going a million miles an hour, or I’m asleep,” Chris said. “It’s always been integral to who I am.”

He had the blessings of his wife of 26 years, Vicki, and their three children, two sons and a daughter who range in age from 19 to 25. Chris threw himself into this opportunity with the same intensity that he tackles most challenges in his life.

Not everyone who offers to donate an organ is ultimately accepted for a variety of reasons. As a result, Chris began researching what it would take. He was fit, healthy and willing, and he could see no downside to his decision.

“The doctors and hospital staff don’t want to turn a healthy person into a non-healthy person, and they cover all the bases,” he said. “I wanted to go into it as mentally strong as I was physically.”

In doing so, he would become a member of an elite team on this ultimate adventure, much like those competing with him in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 100-mile marathon bike race where riders gain nearly 13,000 feet of elevation during the trek.

“Let’s do this,” he said was his attitude.

Preparing his mind and body for living kidney donation and kidney donor surgery

Chris Sullivan with one of his nurses after he donated one of his kidneys to a stranger through the paired kidney exchange.
Chris Sullivan with one of his nurses after he donated a kidney to a stranger through the paired kidney exchange. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan.

Once the UCHealth Transplant Center received his application and after an initial phone screening, Chris underwent a 325-question psychosocial-medical evaluation that is part of the rigorous psychological prep work organ donors face. He also had a full medical workup and numerous exams to ensure he was appropriate to be able to donate.

Like all living donors, Chris was assigned a social worker to serve as his advocate and to help him navigate the donation process, which can take anywhere from six months to a year.

“There is a very high bar to be a living kidney donor,” said Dana Parker, a licensed transplant social worker and independent living donor advocate at UCHealth Transplant Services. “You need to educate yourself, as the goal is to preserve as much kidney function as possible into your later life. Donors learn about how to avoid risks in the future and ways to lead a “kidney” healthy life and decrease potential risk factors.”

The operation itself is typically safe, with up to an eight-week recovery time. In nearly all cases, a donor’s remaining kidney quickly learns to compensate for the missing one as donors resume their normal activities.

That brings up the “why” of it. Parker credits “effective altruism” – the philosophy that motivates certain individuals to do as much good for the world as they can, with the time and resources they have available.

“This is not for everyone, and there is no real benefit for donating … and that’s what makes it so beautiful,” she said.

Critical need for healthy kidneys in nation and Colorado 

In 2021, there were nearly 25,000 kidney transplants in the United States, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing. National statistics show there are 92,000 people in the U.S. with end-stage renal failure waiting for a kidney transplant.

At UCHealth, about 650 people are on a kidney waitlist.

Since the average wait for a donation from a deceased donor is between two and five years, a kidney from a live donor allows a patient to receive a kidney in less time, as well as the ability to stop dialysis. People can also become living liver donors as well.

A living donation comes in two forms: direct donations that go to a friend or relative of the donor, or non-direct, where the donor does not have an intended recipient. Chris opted for the latter. It was also important for him to start a “kidney chain” where his kidney would go to someone waiting for a transplant, someone whose intended donor was incompatible. This starts a “chain” when that donor’s kidney would instead go to another person waiting for a kidney, and so on.

“That was important to me,” he said.

Also, donating through a paired donation program meant Chris was given a kidney “voucher” that he could use to identify individual(s) who may need a kidney in the future, which could decrease their wait time. That voucher would come into play later as part of Chris’ remarkable gift that kept on giving.

Like many donors, Chris talks about the desire to give back as an underlying motivator. Raised in Pittsburgh and a chemistry major at the University of Pittsburgh, a few college trips to the West prompted him to head to Copper Mountain after graduation to teach skiing, where he met Vicki, a fellow ski instructor. After skiing instructor stints in Europe, the couple moved back to Colorado in 1995 and put down roots.

“He definitely has always been someone who sets high goals for himself,” said Vicki, a human resources director for a local restaurant chain. “He wanted to help a lot of people with the donation, and he not only did that, but we’ve met some amazing people and made wonderful friends along the way.”

A group of kidney donors, including Chris Sullivan, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to promote living kidney donation. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan.
A group of kidney donors, including Chris Sullivan, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to promote living kidney donation. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan

Four lives saved through paired kidney exchange

His UCHealth medical workup showed only a few small physical anomalies – one being a slightly enlarged heart because of the endurance activities he participated in, but that was not a hindrance. By summer 2019, he got the green light to donate, though family issues caused him to push his donation to winter 2020. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had impacted the nation’s transplant centers.

By the time the nation’s hospitals got the go-ahead to resume transplants, Chris’ one-year time limit on his medical tests had expired. So after more exams and paperwork, he was back in business by late summer 2020. And because he has O-positive blood, his kidney was in high demand, quickly matched and he entered UCHealth Anschutz on Sept. 30, 2020 for the donation operation.

“It’s like waiting for the countdown of a rocket to launch: all the preparation and the planning and then boom, it’s time to blast off. I was treated like a VIP from the very beginning by UCHealth staff. It went so smoothly, and everyone was amazing.”

His hospital stay was quick and uneventful: out of UCHealth on Day Three, working on Day Five and on a plane traveling for work by Day Nine.

Chris’ kidney went to a 32-year-old man from the mid-West. He was told that the recipient’s operation went well, and that the kidney turned red and started producing urine immediately, which is exactly what doctors want. In turn, two other people donated kidneys in a chain connected to the one Chris donated, meaning three people’s lives were changed forever.

But the kidney he donated was not done paying it forward.

Chris still had the kidney “voucher.” And in a stroke of luck, timing, or perhaps divine intervention, (he thinks a combination of all three), it went to Sam Martin, a Broomfield resident in kidney failure. Sam had been on dialysis for years and was growing discouraged that he would ever get off the waitlist.

A mutual friend got the two together, and in September 2021, Sam was off the waitlist and at UCHealth Anschutz getting his new kidney.

“I call him Spartacus because he is my hero. He saved my life,” said Sam, 66, a diabetic since the age of 35 who battled hypertension and heart issues.  “I feel so blessed.”

Becoming a donor advocate and gifting an improved quality of life

As a trained athlete, Chris can’t guarantee that others will have same outcome. But the experience has made him an enthusiastic advocate for altruistic organ donation.

He’s connected with other organ donors through organizations such as Kidney Donor Athletes, and he joined members in summitting Mount Kilimanjaro last March to raise awareness for living donation on World Kidney Day.

Reflecting on the past few years, Chris likes to say he donated his “angry” kidney. While he lost a kidney, he said he’s gained a sense of peace and more patience.

Chris Sullivan, front, with a group of kidney donors who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan.
Chris Sullivan, front, with a group of kidney donors who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photo courtesy of Chris Sullivan.

“It’s truly had a psychological impact on me; I see that life is too short, and I’ve learned to let go of the stuff I can’t control.”

And as for the man who got his kidney, Chris received a message from him that said, “Thank you” along with a question, “Why did you do it?”

“I told him about all the wonderful things I have been able to do in the 20 or so years since I was his age: had three children, spend time with my wife, family and friends, just so much. I wanted him to be able to have those years as well, so he could have the same experiences.”

To become a living donor, or learn more about living donations, visit the UCHealth living donor website.

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.