Sometimes a casual conversation can be life-changing. This story of two coworkers who ended up saving the other’s husband through kidney donation highlights the importance of being open, sharing stories, and always choosing kindness.
Tia Wimbush and Susan Ellis worked in the IT department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for 10 years. After finding out in 2019 that each had a husband on the transplant list waiting for a kidney, they became friends and confidants, sharing their journey. Then last September, during a casual restroom conversation about the donor process, Tia asked Susan her husband’s blood type. Susan’s husband is O negative, a rare type that’s difficult to match. And Tia’s husband? He is AB.
Wimbush is blood type O, compatible with O negative, while Ellis is type A, compatible to Wimbush’s husband’s AB. Wimbush told CNN the thought that immediately went through her head was, “What if we can donate our kidneys to each other’s husbands?”
A call to Tia’s donor coordinator started the process of seeing if the pair were a match for the other’s spouse.
Rodney Wimbush, Tia’s husband was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2019, while Lance Ellis, Susan’s husband, was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2010. A kidney transplant from his mother in 2017 failed in 2019, coincidentally just days after Rodney’s diagnosis. Both men were undergoing regular dialysis just to stay alive. By 2020, both men were added to the transplant list, but the average wait time is at least five years.
Antibody tests revealed each woman was an excellent match for the other’s spouse. So, on March 19, 2021, the four friends underwent surgery at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. Tia gave Lance her kidney, and Susan gave Rodney hers. The four surgeries lasted about three to four hours each and were executed with no complications.
Clark Kensinger, the surgeon who handled the donor operations said, “Donors are heroes, and this case is especially unique and beautiful because two wonderful patients facilitated lifesaving donations simply by sharing their stories with one another.”
“It is very rare for two immunologically incompatible pairs to propose their own paired exchange and actually be a match for one another,” Christina Klein, a transplant nephrologist at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, said in a statement. “I have been a transplant nephrologist since 2008 working in active living donation and paired kidney exchange programs, and I have personally never seen this happen before.”
Rodney Wimbush said he will be forever grateful that his wife decided to bring up a conversation about blood types in the office restroom. He’s looking forward to more years with his wife and two sons, while Lance Ellis is looking forward to a more active life with Susan and his two stepdaughters.
Although the two couples have not yet gotten together to celebrate the successful transplants, they are making plans for later this year. Tia said the other couple are traveling to North Carolina this fall for their son’s first college football game. Tia said, “I guess you could say we’ve skipped the friendship. We’re family now.”
Susan Ellis and Tia Wimbush are speaking out in the hope of inspiring others to consider becoming living organ donors. They hope that by sharing their story, others will be inspired to become donors — or at least be a little kinder to one another.
“I’m forever changed. I’m hopeful for humanity and I hope other people will take that away from this story,” Tia said. “You can be somebody else’s hope, it could be you to show someone a glimpse of what humanity really means.”
We talk so much about living great lives here at The Joseph Group – the importance of living life with greater purpose and connection to others. What a beautiful example of the impact living with a heart full of kindness and compassion can have – plus what joy it can bring to your own life!
Written by Michelle O’Brien, Manager of Marketing & Communications