Answering the call: Mom meets child who received her kidney

DALLAS – May 1, 2019 – When she turned 48, Lisa James of Arlington, Texas, decided she wanted to make the ultimate gift by donating one of her kidneys to a child she hadn’t met.

“We get one chance to make a really big difference, and this was my calling,” said Lisa, a mother of three and a social worker who works with kidney patients. She called UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and asked to be added to the list of interested kidney donors.

Nearby at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, LeeAnn Sweeney and her family were hoping for a miracle. LeeAnn, age 10, had been coping with kidney problems since birth. LeeAnn was born with kidney disease and only one kidney that had just 33% of normal function. Her condition was managed with medication until she was 5, when she got a urinary tract infection that went septic and she went into kidney failure. LeeAnn was on dialysis for four years before she finally got confirmation she would receive her transplant. 

Meeting for the first time

Life-changing is a word commonly used by those involved with transplant, and this case was no different. In September 2018, Lisa’s kidney was transplanted to LeeAnn, thanks to a coordinated team of transplant surgeons and health care professionals at UT Southwestern. Lisa was thrilled to hear that the recipient was a 10-year-old girl, close in age to her own daughter.

The two of them recently met in person for the first time. LeeAnn’s mother, Tiffany Fincher, told Lisa how incredible it felt to see normal kidney function in her daughter for the first time since LeeAnn was born.

“It was like liquid gold,” Tiffany said. “You would never think that you’d get so excited about watching pee.”

Lisa knew how much her gift would mean to a family because she works daily with kidney disease patients. She has spent the past 13 years as a social worker at a dialysis clinic, where she witnesses firsthand how difficult life without healthy kidneys can be.

“I always felt a tug on my heart,” Lisa said. “My patients are the real heroes. Their lives depend on that machine.”

It’s fitting that Lisa met LeeAnn during National Donate Life Month, a national awareness campaign that encourages Americans to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors and celebrates those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

“You’ve changed all of our lives. We were on the list for over two years,” Tiffany told Lisa and her family. “To have a stranger step up to the plate has been a huge blessing for us.”

When greeting her at the meeting, transplant surgeon Dr. Christine Hwang had a message for Lisa.

“You’ve done a wonderful thing and you’ve helped two children. One who received your kidney and another who moved up on the transplant waiting list,” said Dr. Hwang, Associate Professor of Surgery at UT Southwestern.

During 2018, 91 people received a new kidney through UT Southwestern’s program. Nearly 600 patients have received life-changing kidney transplants since the program began in 2007. UT Southwestern also has well-established programs for liver, lung, and heart transplants.

Lisa credits her husband, Rich, with making her recovery time smooth and easy. The couple have been married 21 years. “I couldn’t have done it without him. He was taking care of all of us,” Lisa said. “My kids were so excited. They know how much my work means to me.”

After just two weeks at home, Lisa went back to work, spending time with family and friends, and swimming laps, one of her favorite ways to exercise.

For LeeAnn, life couldn’t be better. The healthy third grader is back to enjoying swimming, painting, drawing, and playing with her four siblings and friends. Her family is able to take field trips and vacations together for the first time in years.

The 36,527 organ transplants performed in the U.S. in 2018 set an annual record for the sixth straight year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). UT Southwestern is part of the national effort to raise awareness about the need for donors, the organ shortage, and the donor registration process. Those who are interested can register to become an organ donor.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 15 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.