‘It’s so life-giving’: Strangers come together, give gift of life through kidney donation

Updated: Nov. 23, 2022 at 5:55 PM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - You don’t have to be a superhero to save a life.

The requirements are simple, and it starts with a want-to-help.

At any given moment, more than 90,000 people across the country need a kidney. There aren’t enough donors to give them all new life. But at the Medical University of South Carolina, there’s a program where Good Samaritans can donate their kidneys.

That program is how members from two South Carolina families, were able to survive.

Just over a month ago, members of the families met in the King family kitchen to cook a meal together.

“Something smells good,” said Camden King, as he walked past a pot with a simmering sauce.

Each member of the King family has a purpose, just like each dash, slice and pinch does in the kitchen.

”We are happy, intense, passionate,” described Jess King, wife of Matt and mother to Jessica and Camden.

There are many recipes for life, but the King’s recipe includes a lot of garlic in the food and a lot of love in their lives.

”When I was going through all this and knew I could die at the same time, I knew that it was going to work out the way it was supposed to and there was no sense in trying to worry about something that I can’t control,” Matt King recalled.

Matt in many ways is like the main ingredient in a dish for the King family.

”I was pretty healthy for a long time, then this hit me pretty quick,” Matt King said. “I first got diagnosed with GPA Vasculitis, which was an attack on my lungs and kidney, and they treated that with chemo, and that’s what ended up killing my kidney the rest of the way through.”

Matt did not want to go on dialysis.

“I watched my dad go through it and he struggled,” said Matt King.

That meant his only option was to wait for a kidney transplant. The average wait time for a kidney in South Carolina is between three and five years.

”I thought I could die. I wasn’t going to put my family through that,” said Matt King.

”I didn’t know he was that stressed out about it. But through the grapevine of talking to other people, I found out my parents were so stressed and so worried that it was going to be more detrimental to me than it actually was, but I just told them they just needed to get over themselves because I have a lot of things that haven’t happened in my life yet, and they need to be there for it,” said Jessica King.

If Matt is like the main ingredient, Jessica is like the spice that makes the recipe just right.

“She’s the perfect candidate to give a kidney. It’s so crazy. For 23 years she’s our fruits and vegetable nut. ‘I’m not going to eat that bread because it will do this to me,’ you know, and for the longest time, she’s just been different. We eat whatever, we’re bad eaters, so she was perfect for the role,” said Jess King.

But she wasn’t perfect for the role of Matt’s donor. Jessica wasn’t a match.

”I was relieved. I didn’t want my daughter to give me a kidney. I know I couldn’t have stopped her, but I felt guilty,” said Matt King.

Matt’s direct match instead was someone he never met before, over 150 miles away in Myrtle Beach.

”We prayed for a Godly person, healthy, and that it’s in His hands, and we knew that it was being driven by Him,” said Matt King.

”We specifically asked God for specific things and George was everything we asked for,” said Jess King.

”It’s different to be a part of the story in this context. Usually, it’s how am I going to bring the story together and working with the reporter, so now it’s really cool because it’s like sharing my story,” said George Hansen, the chief photographer for WMBF News.

Hansen is not normally in front of the camera, but on a humid August day in Charleston, outside the hospital where he would give a vital organ a few weeks later, Hansen began sharing his story, which started two years prior.

”The inspiration to donate originally came from when I was in Florence. I was working and driving and I was at a stoplight and there was a sticker on the back of a car that said so and so is in need of a kidney, if you’re interested, call this number, and so I called the number and that’s how everything got started,” said Hansen.

Hansen didn’t know Matt when he spent a long day at the hospital, going from appointment to appointment.

From giving blood to getting x-rays, and learning the ins and outs of a living kidney donation. Hansen just wanted to help. He was like the missing ingredient the Kings’ recipe needed.

”It’s not just the patient, just the individual receiving the kidney, they don’t live in a vacuum, so they are also involved in other people’s lives, so it really is a domino and a ripple effect, so by changing one person’s life, you’re changing a whole family potentially, you’re changing the course of history for an entire generation,” said Monica Lowe, the living donor nurse coordinator for MUSC.

But neither Hansen nor the King family knew that the chain wouldn’t end with them. It would also help Nicholas Bland.

”My mom and my brother all had kidney failure. I was put on dialysis two years ago,” said Bland.

Bland is 26 years old and lives in Greenville, South Carolina. He was used to being sick. Jessica King wasn’t used to being sick.

“When I wasn’t a match with my dad and they gave me the option to do the chain living donor program, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first, because I was really disappointed that I wasn’t a direct match for my dad. Then after thinking about it and realizing there was someone else out there who was just as sick as my dad and who was struggling and their life wasn’t what they wanted it to be and I just felt at complete peace with giving my kidney,” said Jessica King.

So on September 7, the four surgeries happened. George gave his kidney to Matt. Jessica gave her kidney to Bland.

“It’s one thing to have Matt going through this life huge thing but then to have a child choose to then walk through this life-changing thing at the same time made it that much harder because now it’s my husband and my daughter,” said Jess King.

Jess and Camden were the caretakers for Matt and Jessica, they acted as the utensils, needed for the meal. The family had a successful day and soon grew by two.

”And to have another kid that gets to be a part of our life, Nick, I feel like he’s mine because he has a part of my daughter, it’s rich,” said Jess King.

But even the richest meals need some sweet moments.

”So we’re all in hospital gowns, asking, ‘Where’s the other person, where’s the other guy,’ and they’re like, ‘Him?’ And George is sitting there in full clothes, ready to go home, and I’m like, “OK superhero George, sorry for holding you up man,” said Bland.

The Kings and Bland were stunned at how Hansen handled surgery, but Hansen said despite being tired, and a little sore, everything went as well as it possibly could.

“I’m just so so thankful that everything went as smooth as it did, and that we’re here today, able to talk about it and laugh about it and just be in such great spirits about it because truly, it was a blessed experience,” said Hansen.

With all of the ingredients gathered, the recipe now complete, the meal is ready. A family of four turned into a family of six reflecting on the gifts they’ve given and received.

”It’s so life-giving. And what’s happening in the flesh is happening in the spirit. And my husband was given life, Nick was given life, and though Jessica gave a kidney and George gave a kidney, the caretakers, the communities, the story, it is producing life, life that people can feed off of and give more life. It’s life-giving. That’s why I’m crying. I’m not sad, I’m thankful,” said Jess King.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the living donor program at MUSC.

MUSC is one of three living kidney donor programs in South Carolina. It has two locations for the program: one in Charleston and one in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Prisma Health recently started its own living kidney donor program as well, based out of Greenville, South Carolina.