Living organ donation winds up saving two lives

Sanford Health employee donates one kidney, helping both a friend and a stranger

Smiling teen boy near a lake shows off his t-shirt that says, "Sara shared her spare." He is a kidney transplant recipient.

Garret Fenner is almost the second son Sara Anderson never had.

If he’s over at Anderson’s house playing with her son Caiden, which happens to be a common occurrence, and has a hankering for a snack, also a common occurrence, he knows which cupboard the bowl and cereal is in.

Anderson, a quality and accreditation specialist at Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota, said she’d do anything she could to help Garret.

So, when Anderson learned Garret was in dire need of a kidney, because of a focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) diagnosis, she wanted to show him she meant it.

FSGS is a serious disease where scar tissue develops on various parts of the kidneys, which are responsible for filtering waste from blood.

“He ended up having to have both kidneys removed. I’m the same blood type as him. So, let’s see what we can do,” she said.

Making sure the pieces fit

When it came to knowing if Anderson was a perfect match for Garret, it felt like putting together a long, complicated, arduous puzzle.

You know the ones. Where every piece is the same color, and there’s no identifiable traits.

Anderson and Garret underwent the first rounds of testing to identify if the donation would work. A donation coordinator called Anderson with some good news, saying everything looked good. But, they’d want to do additional tests to make sure Anderson was a perfect match.

This meant Anderson would have to travel to the University of Minnesota, and undergo an end-to-end, full day of testing.

“At the very end (of the day), we found out I wasn’t a direct match for Garret,” Anderson said.

Considering both the emotional bond the two had, and the amount of work they’d done up to that point, this was tough to take.

However, it wasn’t all bad news.

The donation committee had approved Anderson for surgery. They explained that if Anderson wanted to continue with the kidney donation, she’d still be able to get Garret a healthy kidney.

She could sign up for the national kidney registry, donate her kidney to somebody else that needed one, and Garret would be able to receive a kidney from somebody else.

“He would still be able to get his kidney, even though I couldn’t give him one. That’s what we ended up doing because essentially this journey was to make sure Garret was going to get what he needed. And that was to get that kidney,” Anderson explained.

2 steps forward, 1 step back

Garret had his two kidneys removed in February of 2020 at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. He’s been on dialysis, and living there, ever since.

Anderson said because of the unexpected pivot they had to make, she still had to undergo more tests. Luckily, she didn’t have to drive back and forth from Fargo to Minneapolis.

“It was so nice to be able to do all of my testing that I needed to do – my blood work, my urine analysis, my scans, I was able to do here at Sanford. With electronic medical records, they were able to send everything right to the University of Minnesota,” she said.

Fast forward to April of 2020. The University of Minnesota said all of her results looked good and asked her to come for a full day to take one last look at everything.

You’ve likely heard of the expression “same song, different verse” before. Unfortunately for Garrett and Anderson, that’s the tune they heard.

“The committee initially approved everything. Garret looked good. All of his numbers looked good for surgery. Then we looked at it and our numbers ended up not matching perfectly because he’s only 14. At the time the numbers didn’t match up perfectly.

“They wanted to make sure he was getting the best, youngest, healthiest kidney possible. So it could last him the longest,” she said.

Finally matched

Months went by before Anderson was paired with a patient who cross-matched. The perfect pairing, if you will, was matched in August. On the 11th of that month, Anderson had surgery to remove her kidney, where it was flown to the patient at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland.

A month later, Garret received his kidney from a patient in San Francisco.

Anderson said she didn’t know who her kidney directly went to, other than the patient was around the 40 to 50 age range. However, if that patient chooses, Anderson did allow them to contact her.

“Something my husband and I talked about was do I want to know who it is? Do I not? What if something goes wrong with it? Do I want to know?” she said.

Her doctor informed her that the recipient was “doing great,” and the surgery went well.

Garret, who received his kidney from a 25-year-old male, also had a successful surgery.

Anderson and her family were supported by the Fenner family during Anderson’s surgery. She felt it was only fair to repay the favor.

“His mom and I are best friends. When I had my surgery, Garret and his mom really helped my husband and I out. They made sure my husband was taken care of, whether it was food or coffee, or whatever he needed when I was in the hospital. So, when Garret had his surgery, I made sure I went back down to Minneapolis and brought them food, brought them coffee.

“I had that (thought) ‘I need to be for them now. I need to help them again’,” she said.

‘It feels great’

Anderson said she’s “beyond grateful” to be able to help both Garret and another person, who she may or may not ever meet.

Garret was on the deceased donors list, Anderson explained, and likely would have stayed there until someone would have donated for him to get on the living donor list. As a pediatric patient, it’s best for Garrett to receive a living kidney, “because it’s going to give him the best outcome.”

“He’ll probably be able to have it longer before he needs another transplant. Essentially the kidney is only going to last him maybe 25 or 30 years before he needs to have another kidney transplant.

“Knowing that, once I signed up to do this for him, that put him on the living donor list. Then, as soon as I had my surgery, that put him on the priority list,” she said.

According to Anderson, Garret has unfortunately had some complications post kidney transplant. Because of this, he’s still at the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis. Garret and Caiden miss each other but, “fortunately with the technology we have, Caiden and Garret are able to see each other via FaceTime, play Xbox/PS4 together online and play computer games together online,” Anderson said.

“We have been very fortunate that our families have been able to spend some time together here and there on the weekends. We are very careful about who we are around prior to spending time with them. And, we COVID test prior as well just to make sure.”

More than anything, Anderson wants Garret to be able to be a normal kid again.

“Have him run through my house and dig through my cupboards, that’s what the end goal is. To have them come home again and be a happy, healthy kid.”

Learn more

Posted In Fargo, Sanford Stories, Transplant