Paula Kok's husband was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013. Unfortunately, chemo was not successful. The next step was a bone marrow transplant, but Paula, a senior specialist – network support in Hoover, Alabama,
wasn't a match.
"That put us at the mercy of a stranger," Paula said. "We waited for months on the bone marrow transplant list. We were praying for someone to donate."
Luckily for them, her husband was able to join an experimental drug trial at Vanderbilt in Tennessee. It worked. He no longer needs a transplant and he's doing very well.
While that would be a great ending to this story – including that he has run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., twice since his diagnosis – it doesn't stop there.
Inspired to donate
Paula spoke to a friend at his father's funeral. He had donated a kidney to his father when he first became ill.
"My friend told me that the last five years of his dad's life since the donation had been the best five years,"Paula said. "I realized then that the Holy Spirit was saying, 'Look, you are somebody's stranger.'"
Making it happen
Paula searched online for local places to donate a kidney and found the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program. She went through months of psychiatric and physical tests, including donating 47 tubes of blood. The doctors needed to make sure she wasn't coerced, her body was healthy, and that they could find the perfect match. Then she got the call asking when she could do the surgery.
"I am grateful to work at a company that allowed me to telecommute," Paula said. "I didn't have to delay the surgery and I was back to work a week later. My team and boss made it easy for me. And I felt great."
Timing is everything
Paula's donation triggered a chain of donations.
"The timing was perfect," Paula said. "Four others received kidneys that same day."
Here's how the UAB kidney transplant list works.
Normally, if someone needs a kidney transplant and a family member or friend is not a match or no one is willing to donate, then that person goes on a wait list for a cadaver kidney. That is a giant pool of over 100,000 people waiting.
"It takes a catalyst to get the whole thing going," Paula said. "If more people were willing to be a living kidney donor, it could substantially reduce the number of people on the list."
Paula did her part. She started the longest living kidney-transplant chain in the U.S. She donated to a woman who had lupus. That woman's daughter was a match until the woman had a blood transfusion and her antibodies changed. Her daughter then donated her kidney to a stranger, so her mother could receive Paula's.Every recipient in the chain must have someone donate on their behalf to keep the chain going.
Now, 39 people have received kidneys from unselfish acts of donors. And seven more are scheduled in June.
"My donation created a daisy chain and it just keeps going," Paula said.
Meeting the recipient
"I didn't want to meet my recipient," Paula said. "I didn't want to be judgmental about if the person would take care of the kidney. That was none of my business."
Her husband and a nurse convinced her otherwise.
"They told me that if it was a good story, then someone might be inspired to donate," Paula explained.
She decided to meet her recipient, Lornette Stewart from Shalimar, Florida – and found out it was meant to be. Lornette lives right down the road from where Paula grew up. And she was in the same Navy boot camp in 1986.
"She was in the other female company like mine," Paula said. "We could have been in the chow hall together."
In June, the count of recipients with similar stories will be up to 45. But nobody's bragging.
"I'm not amazing at all," Paula said. "I'm just blessed."