LINDSBORG — Donating one of her kidneys to a complete stranger wasn't a hard decision for Rita Suppes.

Giving a piece of herself to someone in need of a lifesaving transplant as an altruistic living donor was a way Suppes said she could best serve both God and humanity.

"Every day, my husband and I pray we're able to serve God and serve him well," said Suppes, a teacher of at-risk students at Smoky Valley High School. "One day it was placed in my heart that I should be a donor. There was no hesitation, especially when I found out how safe it was."

Unlike most organ donations, a kidney can be taken from a living donor with no lasting harm, as Suppes discovered. An altruistic donor is someone who does not donate to a person related to them by blood or marriage but a complete stranger who they may never meet.

Six months after the donation, both parties can contact each other if the donor chooses, Suppes said, and she chose to meet the recipient of her kidney.

Suppes made an initial email contact with Larned resident Trish Ford, and the two woman met for dinner in Salina on Jan. 12, 2018.

Both Suppes and Ford said meeting turned out to be more emotional than they expected.

"I'm not a crier, but I started crying when I saw her," Suppes said. "We kind of look alike, more than I do with some of my siblings. We're both small, the same height, both with the same since of humor. And we both like to garden."

For Ford, who works at the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, meeting the woman who gave her a lifesaving organ was a profoundly moving experience.

"We share a lot of the same DNA, so it makes sense that even if we're not related, we look like sisters," she said. "I think if we had met in the street, we would have become friends anyway. What she did was the most generous thing anyone could ever do for someone else."

As both women remarked, it's a living reminder of what Easter is all about.

Making the decision

When Suppes made the decision to donate a kidney, it took her more than a year to be matched with Ford. She contacted the Midwest Transplant Network in Leawood and was directed to the University of Kansas Health System, which specializes in living kidney donations.

Suppes began what she called an "extensive" screening process beginning in March 2016 that involved blood work, a comprehensive physical examination and an intense psychological evaluation. The process involved both Suppes and her husband Glen, the superintendent of Smoky Valley schools, who would be her caretaker during the process.

"They have to make sure you're in top medical condition because you don't want to make anyone else sick," she said. "And there's even psychiatric work to make sure you're not a loony."

Samantha Brenner, a registered nurse and living donor coordinator for the University of Kansas Health System, said a potential donor's mental evaluation is nearly as important as making sure they have two healthy kidneys.

"We want to make sure anyone who wants to donate altruistically knows what they're going through and that they can handle it," she said.

Brenner said as long as a potential donor has two healthy kidneys, when one is taken the other will "kick into high gear."

"The remaining kidney will function at 65 to 70 percent of what both kidneys were doing, which is an acceptable percentage," she said. "It doesn't decrease your life expectancy if you donate. If there was any kind of high risk for kidney failure in the future, we won't let someone donate."

For those wondering about the cost of a transplant, Suppes said the recipient's insurance company foots the bill for the entire procedure for the donor, "and even my follow-up for two years."

Confidentiality important

Although Ford was eventually selected as a match, Suppes said her kidney could have gone anywhere in four states.

"Since I'm so small, I could have even been matched with a child," she said.

Confidentiality is vital during the donation process, so during the removal of Suppes' kidney and its transplant into Ford, their husbands were purposely moved to different waiting rooms so they wouldn't accidentally meet and connect the dots.

"I was brought to the hospital the night before so there wasn't a chance we would run into each other," Ford said. "My husband was in a waiting room, looking around, wondering if this or that person might be related to the donor."

The operation was a success for both Suppes and Ford, although Suppes said she did have her share of pain for the first couple of weeks.

"The ride back to Lindsborg was the absolute worst part, because I could feel every bump and bridge in the road," Suppes said. "It was all right after that."

Ford said she is eternally grateful for the sacrifice Suppes made for her. Ford said she waited nearly two-and-a-half years for a kidney and was on dialysis much of that time.

"The quality of life you have is a lot less — I was tired all the time," she said. "A lot of things you don't have the energy for."

After the transplant, Ford said the improvement in her life was profound. She was able to go out more, could plant and cultivate a garden once more, and most importantly was able to attend her daughter's graduation from the KU School of Medicine in Salina.

Ford was even able to enjoy the Smoky Hill River Festival in Salina last summer, where she met up with Suppes for a fun weekend of music, art and lots of food.

"I'm healthier and happier now," Ford said. "I have energy and a new lease on life, and it's all due to Rita."

Altruistic behavior

Brenner said living donors tend to have a history of altruistic behavior, and many are in the teaching profession like Suppes.

"They're very giving people who are trying to do good for other people," she said.

Suppes said she was able to go back to a totally normal life in just a short time, riding eight miles on her bicycle just six weeks after the surgery.

"There's nothing I can't do now that I couldn't do before," she said.

Even with those couple of weeks of post-surgery pain, Suppes said she would do it all over again.

"It made me so grateful that I got to be part of giving someone a second life," she said. "Our bodies are made for one kidney, and we have two, so I donated my spare. I will have a scar, because they take the kidney from the front, but that's okay. I'm not going to be wearing a bikini."