An act of God's love between two strangers
Posted in , Mar 1, 2008
Of the more than 400,000 organ transplants performed in the U.S. in the last 20 years, roughly 20 percent have come from living donors, the vast majority of whom are blood relatives, spouses or close friends. It's rare for a person to make a living organ donation to a total stranger. Not surprising when you consider the surgical risks and potential long-term complications.
That's what Paul Wagner thought until he read an article about Matchingdonors.org, a website that connects people who need transplants with those willing to be donors. Intrigued, he went to the site and typed in his hometown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Paul didn't have a privileged background that might have afforded philanthropy. He grew up using food stamps and admits to making many mistakes in his youth, including using drugs. "But I always got another chance," he says. A high school principal and teachers who looked after him when his mother was sick. School tuition. Job opportunities. Funding for drug rehab. Paul says help came when he needed it most, and because of that, "I wanted to give someone else a chance."
That someone turned out to be former opera singer Gail Tomas, also from the Philadelphia area. Her online profile said that she loved life and wanted to see her grandkids grow up. Severe kidney disease had required a year of dialysis, which Gail says "drained the life out of me," leaving her hospitalized. Her hopes for a donor, already slim because of her O+ blood type, were crushed when a promising donor dropped out the picture.
Paul, also type O, emailed Gail, offering her his kidney. He says, "It would have been wrong for me not to help." That attitude, however, was not shared by most surgeons, who refused to participate. The surgeon who agreed only did so after long interviews with Paul to ascertain his motivation. The transplant finally happened on February 14, 2006, National Donor Day.
Afraid that she'd feel tied to him merely out of gratitude, Paul made it clear to Gail that he didn't want to get to know her. Gail had other ideas. She invited Paul to her son's wedding and when he refused, she got mad. That broke down the barriers to their friendship. "When she yelled at me, I knew everything would be okay," says Paul, chuckling at the memory.
Now they touch base every few weeks and celebrate holidays together. Says Gail, "I found someone I didn't know who was willing to give the ultimate gift. He wanted to save my life. How could I not be his friend?"