Decades ago, Brandi Thornton babysat for a little girl who desperately needed a lung transplant. The transplant never happened, and the girl died at age 19.
“No family should have to watch their child die without getting a lung,” Thornton said.
In honor of that young woman, her childhood neighbor in Salida, Colorado, Thornton has accomplished extraordinary acts of selflessness. Twice.
In 2019, she donated part of her liver to a patient at Children’s Hospital Colorado and in 2017, she donated one of her kidneys to a man in Ohio. She had not met either recipient.
Thornton is one of only a few Americans who donated organs. In 2018, 17,553 Americans donated organs; 6,831 of them were living donors. Altruistic donors like Thornton, who donate to people whom they have no connection, are even rarer.
“The general public has this reaction of why would someone do this for someone they don’t know? Why take that risk for someone who is not a loved one?” said Jamie Cisek, one of Thornton’s living donor coordinators with UCHealth’s Living Donor program. “But the donors I talk to have the opposite reaction. They don’t understand why more people wouldn’t do this: step forward to save someone’s life when they have something to offer.”
For Thornton, 46, the decision was easy.
18 people die each day waiting for a transplant
Thornton’s childhood neighbor wrote about her looming death in a diary that was shared at her memorial.
“It just bothered me so much,” Thornton said. “She was one of the most beautiful little girls, and so sassy. I remember sitting in the front yard with her and her brother. She was barely walking. She turned the hose on us and told us it was raining.”
On her driver’s license, Thornton has always had the universal symbol of a heart, giving legal authorization for the donation of organs, eye and tissue after death. But it never made sense to her that there are not enough organ donors.
“I’ll never advocate for someone to become a double living donor because it is extremely hard,” Thornton said. “But I’ll always beg people to donate after they die. Their story gets to continue after they donate and there would be so many people saved.”
One deceased donor can potentially save eight lives
About 145 million people, or 61% of the U.S. population old enough to donate, are registered as organ donors, according to organdonor.gov. However, only about 0.3% of those people can actually become donors when they die.
Currently, more than 1,450 people are waiting for a lung on a list from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). About 10 times that number are waiting for organs such as a kidney, liver or heart.
Every 10 minutes a person is added to the donor waiting list
Thornton is the mother of two girls, now 8 and 13. In 2015, after her second daughter’s birth, Thornton was invited to “like” a Facebook page of an acquaintance. His wife needed a kidney and was looking for a living donor.
With so many on the transplant list for a deceased donor, living donations offer another option for transplant candidates and extend the supply of organs. Living donors can provide a kidney, part of a liver, a lobe of a lung, or portions of the pancreas or intestine, according to OPTN.
“I thought, ‘What if I test, and I’m a match? But what if I don’t test and no one else tests either?’” Thornton said. “I didn’t know her, but I kept thinking about her, about (my childhood neighbor), and about losing my own parents. (This woman) had a son, and I remember how hard it was to lose my parents.”
UCHealth performed 143 living donor transplants in 2018
Thornton reached out to UCHealth to discuss becoming a living kidney donor.
She met with Angela Miskolci, a registered nurse and living donor kidney coordinator who’s worked at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital for 15 years. Miskolci takes potential donors through the process, starting with a discussion of what donation would mean, possible risks, recovery and the recipient pairing process. If the prospective donor is still interested, they are run through rigorous testing, both physical and psychological.
Donors must be healthy — no diabetes, no high blood pressure, no obesity, among other considerations. Potential donors have blood draws, X-rays, a CT scan, ultrasound, EKG heartbeat monitoring and 24-hour urine analysis.
Individuals meet with a social worker and a psychologist. A potential donor must have a strong support system and coping skills because transplant surgery can take a toll on the body, both physical and emotional.
Most everyone has two kidneys and may potentially donate one after completing the pre-screening process. Kidney donor surgery is less invasive and usually has a shorter recovery time than other organ donation surgeries.
Thornton qualified as a kidney donor, but she wasn’t a match to her new Facebook friend, who passed away before a match was found.
The first successful living-donor kidney transplant was performed in 1954
Thornton was entered in the National Kidney Registry pair exchange program and her information was relayed to other transplant centers looking for donors.
“They do a match run and try to put chains together,” Miskolci said.
Unlike the liver, kidneys can be transported long distance and donors do not have to be in the general area of the donor.
The goal of the kidney registry is to get as many people an organ as possible. While Thornton was not a match for her Facebook friend, her information was entered into the registry and a match was found.
Thornton’s kidney went to a man in Ohio who had someone willing to donate a kidney, and that person was a match for someone else in the registry. However, that person didn’t have a pair, so the chain ended. Because Thornton was a “non-directed altruistic donor” — a person who starts a chain but not for a specific recipient — UCH got a “kidney payback,” meaning that when another chain occurs, one of UCH’s patients on the registry who doesn’t have a pair will get to end the chain. This meant Thornton’s donation potentially saved the lives of three others needing a kidney.
The process is anonymous. Once transplants are done, however, donors and recipients may contact each other through letters passed through social workers. Eventually, Thornton met the man in Ohio who received her kidney and she also met another altruistic donor in the chain.
“I’m not sure what it is like for other donors, but it’s almost like this magnetic feeling — like an energy — like maybe your body knows that it’s there,” she said of the meeting with her kidney’s recipient.
Her family was with her.
Most living donors are between the ages of 18 and 60
At Thornton’s two-year check-up with UCHealth, she asked if it would be possible to donate a second organ. Cisek told Thornton that it was possible, though uncommon, for her to also donate a portion of her liver. UCHealth is the only transplant program in Colorado that will perform living liver donations, and one of only a few in the country that will perform a second transplant surgery on the same donor.
A few weeks later, Thornton again went through the rigorous testing and evaluations to be a donor.
“Brandi’s liver was appropriate for any type of recipient, but with living donors, we err on the side of taking the least amount possible,” Cisek said.
20% of liver transplants at UCH are from live donors, compared to 5% nationally
The liver can regenerate, allowing it to be viable for living donation. But risks are much greater for liver donation than kidney donation and recovery is more difficult.
“It’s a long recovery, and one can anticipate it being 12 weeks before they are back to normal because the body is putting everything into regeneration of the liver, which happens in eight to 12 weeks,” Cisek said.
“The risk to the donor is directly related to the amount of liver taken,” she explained.
Because of this, a liver donation from a living donor is often given to a child or small adult. The UCH transplant team often works closely with Children’s Hospital Colorado in these types of situations.
In 2018, about 5% of transplant recipients were under the age of 18
On May 2, 2019 — only months after being approved to donate a portion of her liver —Thornton again underwent donor surgery at UCH.
She learned that her liver would go to a child, and that weighed heavily on her. She worried about the organ transplant working, she said.
“I really let it get to me,” she said. “I wasn’t worried about myself. I knew I was in good hands, as I’d been there before. But the thought of it going to a child — I thought of my own kids, I thought about (my childhood neighbor) and how she’d been at Children’s — how it had come full circle.”
Thornton said that as with her kidney recipient, she plans to write her liver recipient a letter.
“I’ll write the letter to the recipient, though I don’t think (the recipient) can probably read yet. But I’ll tell (the recipient) who I am, about my family, and then I’ll share what my liver likes to do,” she said with a smile.
“I don’t want them to feel they have to get in touch with me or that they need to thank me,” she said. “I just hope they take my liver on adventures and let it experience life. I just hope this child is able to have a happy and healthy life.’’
Thornton takes very little credit for her acts of selflessness that have saved the lives of four people. She has honored her childhood neighbor and her Facebook friend.
“It if wasn’t for them, I would have never done this,” she said. “And if it weren’t for the staff at UCHealth — if they weren’t as amazing as they are — I would have never considered donating a kidney, and would have never done it twice had my experience not been so positive.
“There are so many other people that played a more important role in this, and if it weren’t for them, there would be no donors like me.”