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Becoming friends, remaking life

Ex-classmates’ online connection leads to kidney donation

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / September 27, 2011

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BRISTOL, R.I. - They hugged on the deck behind the local Elks Club, where their high school class was holding its 25th reunion this month. You look great, said both women, now 43-year-old mothers. They smiled, stood apart, then embraced again. Classmates greeted them with hugs and high fives.

Each woman wore a piece of jewelry symbolizing the bond that has grown between them over the past two years, since Liz Kennedy learned that Ying Su, her former classmate, needed a kidney transplant and Kennedy might be a match. A special bond evolved, one that would come to link organ donor to recipient.

Kennedy’s charm bracelet, affixed with a heart-shaped pendant bearing the date 7/19/2011, was a gift from Su this July. Su’s necklace, a silver kidney bean dangling from a chain, came from Kennedy.

During their years at Barrington (R.I.) High School, Kennedy barely knew Su - making more remarkable her act of generosity two months ago: the donation of a kidney that would transform her former classmate’s life.

The story behind their reconnecting after nearly a quarter-century, and of the life-changing impact that has had on Kennedy, Su, and their families, contains plot twists worthy of a novelist’s imagination.

There is the social media angle, for one, a pair of former classmates friending each other on Facebook, then discovering they had more to swap than fading yearbook memories. Then, too, there’s the motivation driving someone like Kennedy, who has two young children at home, to help someone like Su, whose debilitating, but generally not fatal, medical condition caused Kennedy to wonder: What if I were in her shoes?

There are the coincidental birthdays - they were both born June 6, 1968 - and blood types, coupled with Su’s failure to find a suitable donor after many false starts. Also, Kennedy’s stepmother-in-law, a nursing professor, is associated with Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, one of a small handful of New England transplant centers, where the surgery took place.

There’s even the shared belief that “something higher was working here,’’ as Su put it emotionally two weekends ago, the first time the two had seen one another since occupying adjoining operating rooms.

“Just the fact that Liz even offered to do this blew me away,’’ said Su, who lives in Mount Vernon, N.Y., with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. “To give because you want to give unconditionally, not knowing the other person so well - that’s pretty amazing.’’

Their back stories are pretty amazing, too.

Born in Taiwan, Su and her family settled in Barrington while her father studied medicine at Brown University. A gifted musician voted Most Artistic by her classmates, she nevertheless had few close friends in high school, she says, and felt somewhat out of place among her predominantly white, upper-middle-class schoolmates.

Upon graduating from Parsons design school in New York, Su carved out a career in the fashion industry. Fifteen years ago, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus, an autoimmune disorder that attacks various organs, including the kidneys. Affecting 1.5 million Americans, the majority of them young to middle-aged women, lupus has no known cause or cure.

Kidney failure three years ago caused Su to start thrice-weekly dialysis treatments. Her best prospect for leading a more normal, machine-free life was a transplant. Several donor candidates with matching (O positive) blood types stepped forward, including Su’s sister. None was a suitable candidate, though, because of underlying medical issues such as hypertension. Transplant teams make donor safety their top priority, medical specialists say.

Around the same time Su began dialysis, she joined Facebook, where many former classmates, Kennedy among them, were reconnecting in anticipation of their September 2011 reunion.

At Barrington High, Elizabeth Pease, as Kennedy was known, often wondered, too, where she fit in. After graduating from Tufts, she eventually settled in Franklin, Mass., with her husband, Shaun, and their two children. A public relations and marketing executive by profession, Kennedy entered her 40s with a nearly spotless medical record. Still, she had never even donated blood before, much less thought about becoming an organ donor. Two summers ago, she logged on to Su’s Facebook page. Two lives would never be the same.

“What really got me were pictures of her daughter,’’ said Kennedy, who owns a family home in Bristol, a few miles from Barrington High. “I do a lot of stuff with my kids on weekends, and here she is on Saturdays, tied to a machine. I thought, her daughter needs a mom in her life, not a patient. Ying had gotten a bad roll of the dice.’’

In October 2009, Kennedy raised the idea in a Facebook message of becoming a donor match. “I am a little speechless here,’’ Su replied. Three months later, they began sharing more personal information offline. Once Su was accepted into Yale’s transplant program, Kennedy volunteered to submit blood samples, the first step in a lengthy evaluation process.

Kidney transplants, though hardly rare, come via the deceased far more frequently than they do through living donors. In 2010, according to the Minnesota-based Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, nearly 17,000 kidneys were transplanted. Only about one-third (6,276) were from the living. Over the same period, the waiting list for transplant candidates hovered between 85,800 and 91,200. More than 5,000 candidates died while awaiting a donor, the registry reports. Those who do receive fresh kidneys do very well, however, with the three-year survival rate for recent recipients exceeding 90 percent.

As part of her evaluation, Kennedy was counseled that she would not be “saving’’ Su by agreeing to the transplant. She would merely be increasing her friend’s chances to lead a more normal life.

“We take that pressure off,’’ said Dr. Richard Formica, medical director for Yale’s transplant team.

As for the Facebook factor, Formica has seen a growing number of donors and donees connecting through social media, although no hard data exists on how widespread this is.

“Anecdotally, yes, we’re seeing a lot of this,’’ he said. “It’s social media supplanting what extended family used to be, knitting people together.’’

The questioning reassured Kennedy that she was making the right decision for the right reasons.

“Telling me I wasn’t saving my friend’s life was comforting, because you’re not playing God,’’ she reflected. “Also, I knew could back out anytime, right up to the surgery. It allowed me to make the decision in and of itself.’’

Shaun Kennedy recalls asking his wife: Are you serious? Give up a kidney to a near stranger? “If the roles were reversed, though, I’d want her support, too,’’ he said. “Ultimately it was her body and her decision.’’

This May, Kennedy and Su spoke by phone for the first time since high school. One month later, they met in person for final tests at Yale. A flare-up of Su’s lupus in early July threatened to postpone surgery. But it was able to take place as scheduled, on July 19, the date now engraved on Kennedy’s charm bracelet.

Two days after the procedure, Kennedy walked out of the hospital on her own. By early August, she was back on the tennis court.

Meanwhile, Su’s health has improved dramatically since the surgery. Once vulnerable to heart problems and seizures, she has returned to work with renewed energy and she no longer schedules mother-daughter time around dialysis treatments.

“Looking at you and how healthy you are, Ying, convinced me I made the right decision,’’ Kennedy told her friend on reunion night. One far-flung classmate, Illinois marketing executive Tracy DiAngelo, came up to Kennedy and marveled at how well both women seemed to be feeling.

Another alum, Anne Stoops, a North Shore teacher who has remained close with Kennedy, said the most common reaction among classmates was amazement. Many knew Su had been ailing, she said, yet few knew about the sacrifice Kennedy had made, quietly and unselfishly.

“Liz’s decision did not surprise me,’’ Stoops said. “But most people don’t think, ‘Wow, I could be a match.’ That’s not real typical.’’

Fatigued after a few hours of socializing, Su called it a night early. Kennedy stayed out till 1 a.m., not one to miss an after-party. It was a night to remember in what turned out to be a summer filled with impregnable memories.

Over breakfast the next morning, Kennedy and Su promised to see plenty of each other between now and their 50th reunion.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.