When Mary Leger of Joliet, Ill., volunteered to donate a kidney to a complete stranger, her family members—four children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren—were shocked. Leger, after all, was in her sixties. Why take that risk for someone she didn’t even know?
“I told them I was healthy and strong and that this was something I really wanted to do—something I needed to do,” Leger says.
Her voice still catches with emotion when she talks about the first stranger who needed her help—the one she refused some 40 years ago.
“In 1969 my son, Joey, was in a coma,” she says. “He was only 3 1/2 years old, and he was dying. I was just devastated.”
Doctors asked Leger, then a young, grief-stricken mother in her twenties, to donate her son’s heart for a transplant. “I couldn’t,” she says. “I just couldn’t handle the thought.”
To this day she still carries her memories of Joey—and of the unknown child “who needed his heart.”
“Later, I made a pact with God that I would try to help others if I ever got the opportunity,” Leger says in a firm voice.
And so last month, with her family’s blessing, she traveled to Chicago’s Northwestern Transplant Center to donate a kidney to a 53-year-old hospital administrative assistant named Joe—Joe Plovich of Palantine, Ill.
The two strangers were linked, improbably, by an unconventional Internet site that is winning more converts every month. In four years, www.matchingdonors.com, launched by a doctor and Internet executive, has generated live donor matches that have resulted in 92 transplant operations. While the nonprofit site charges patients a sliding fee to tell their stories online and to gain access to men and women who have signed up to donate organs, its officials say the fees are waived for 30 percent of its clients.
Plovich says that seven family members and friends volunteered to help him, but no one tested as a good match.
“My sister is an ER doctor and she did all the research and signed me up on Matching Donors,” says Plovich, who suffered from polycystic kidney disease, a condition triggered by a genetic defect.
More than 100,000 people today are awaiting organ transplants in the United States, and moving up the official lists, maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), can take years.
UNOS relies on deceased donors for the majority of its organs. But in the past few years, a small but growing number of live donors—friends, family and even strangers—have begun to offer kidneys and other organs like bone marrow for transplants. The donors are responding to pleas made by their relatives, community groups and coworkers—and now by strangers on Internet sites like Matching Donors. By law, no money or compensation can be given to a donor in exchange for the organ.
Plovich says he was told it could take five to seven years before he moved up the UNOS list for a donor. “My sister,” he says, “found my match in about eight months on the website.”
Mary Leger, who has made helping others her avocation, moved to Joliet in 2004 to help nurse a daughter-in-law who had cancer. When Leger applied for her Illinois driver’s license, she was asked if she would be an organ donor. “I said yes, and that got me thinking,” the retired Sears credit manager says. “That’s when someone mentioned this website, and I decided to go there and volunteer.”
UNOS officials say living donors need to be physically fit, in good health and free from diseases such as cancer or diabetes. Donors are usually between the ages of 18 and 60.
Leger, who just turned 66, is a trim athletic woman with short, pixie-cut gray hair and sparkling blue eyes. She walks three to six miles a day, loves to swim and played on a softball team well into her late fifties. “I may be older but I’m in good health,” she laughs.
Once she registered with the website, Leger received thousands of e-mails, which she answered, but she says, “I think because of my age, there were very few follow-up calls
Leger did work with one woman who called her, and tests showed the two were a good match for a transplant. “I was all set to get on the plane for the operation when she called to tell me she had another matching donor and was going to go with her.”
Then, last September, Leger got the call about Joe. His kidney disease, which had been diagnosed when he was in his twenties, was accelerating. He needed a transplant. Leger was not only tested as a match for Plovich, she was examined and evaluated physically and psychologically by the transplant team.
The team assured Plovich that despite her age, Leger’s kidney was functioning well.
Plovich and Leger met for the first time before the transplant surgery, when both were in the hospital for tests. “He looked so sick,” Leger recalls. “But he was just the nicest person.”
“Our first meeting was very warm, very comfortable. I felt like I had known her for a long time,” Plovich says. “Mary is a sweet, generous person. You can talk to her for hours.”
The next time they saw each other was just hours after the Dec. 30 transplant operation, when she walked slowly down the hall from her room to his.
“He looked better already, his color was good and he was in good spirits,” Leger says. “He called me his angel.”
Today “both Joe and I are doing fine, recovering well,” says Leger. The recovery takes about six weeks, and while she is back to walking three miles a day, “I can’t do the full six miles yet.”
Plovich says his recovery is remarkable and that Leger’s kidney is outstanding.
“The doctors told me I could live to be 100 with this kidney,” he says.
“It’s so amazing that a stranger did this for me,” he says. “It’s almost unbelievable. She saved my life.”
The two plan to have lunch together soon and to keep in touch.
Even with all her church and volunteer work, several years ago Leger felt she could do more and “out of the blue” she took a job driving a daily school bus for children in special education.
“I can’t wait to get back to my route,” she says. “That should be in a few weeks.”
And Leger continues to check Matching Donors frequently for someone in need: After all, she is still listed on the website—as a willing bone marrow donor.
Barbara Basler is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.