Tia Wimbush and Susan Ellis have been co-workers for a decade, and while they didn’t know each other well, they learned two years ago that their spouses each needed a kidney transplant.
Then last August, something remarkable happened.
The women saw each other in a restroom at work and started chatting as they washed their hands. They had a lot in common, both working in information technology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and dealing with the same medical stress at home.
Neither was a match to be an organ donor for her own husband, and the transplant waiting lists are impossibly long.
Wimbush casually asked Ellis what her husband’s blood type was.
He’s type O, Ellis replied.
Wimbush said her husband was type AB.
The women paused for a moment and looked at each other. Then Wimbush realized they might have stumbled upon something that might help save both of their husbands’ lives.
Wimbush thought she might be a match for Ellis’s husband, and — incredibly — she thought Ellis could be a match for her husband.
“I told Susan, ‘Wait a second — what are the odds that we’re both going through this with our husbands at the same time and we could also be in a position to help them,’” Wimbush recalled.
“That’s when we both knew: We had to get tested,” she said.
Antibody tests revealed that each woman was an excellent match for the other’s spouse.
So in March, seven months after that chance conversation, Wimbush donated one of her kidneys to Lance Ellis, 41, and Susan Ellis donated one of hers to Rodney Wimbush, 45.
Both transplants done at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital went so well that the men have almost fully recovered and are going on weekend hikes with friends and family, Tia Wimbush said.
“They’ve each gained the gift of health and more years — it’s wonderful to see how they now have quality of life after so many years of dialysis treatments,” she said.
Lance Ellis, who runs a sign company, had received a kidney from his mother in 2017, Susan Ellis said. But his body rejected it in August 2019, and his name was added to the national kidney transplant waiting list.
Rodney Wimbush, a high-school math teacher, had his name added to the list in 2020, when he was diagnosed with kidney failure after several weeks of feeling lethargic and nauseous, Tia Wimbush said.
Patients can wait five years or longer for their name to come up on the national kidney cadaver donor waiting list, according to the American Kidney Fund.
The women said they were worried their husbands didn’t have that kind of time.
“When Tia and I got our antibody tests back and everything was almost 100% positive, it was like a validation for us that this was going to work,” Ellis, 42, recalled.
“It was a relief to know that we could each give one of our kidneys and get them off that cycle of dialysis and waiting,” Wimbush, 45, added.
Christina Klein, a nephrologist and medical director of Piedmont’s kidney transplant program, said it is extremely rare for two people to propose their own paired organ exchange and actually be a match for each other.
“I’ve personally never seen this happen,” Klein said. “When we put pairs into large databases for national paired exchange programs, some pairs wait months or even years for a compatible match.”
The surgeries were bumped a few times after Lance Ellis was hospitalized with blood clots in December and Susan Ellis tested positive for the coronavirus in January and had to isolate in a hotel for 10 days.
Once things were back on track, the couples chatted on FaceTime a little bit, Tia Wimbush said, but they weren’t all in the same room until they came to the hospital for a final round of testing a few days before the surgeries.
“You could feel the emotion, but we were all quietly excited to get it over with,” she said.
The four surgeries lasted about three to four hours each and were executed with no complications, according to Clark Kensinger, the surgeon who handled the donor operations.
“Donors are heroes, and this case is especially unique and beautiful because two wonderful patients facilitated lifesaving donations simply by sharing their stories with one another,” he said.
Three months after the March 19 kidney donations, Susan Ellis and Tia Wimbush are speaking out in the hope of inspiring others to consider becoming living organ donors.
A video of their story made by the hospital where they work has been widely shared on social media.
“It’s really just a story about simple kindness,” Ellis said. “For us, the kindness came in conversation and in reaching out to a colleague. It started with two people just being good humans. Now we’d like to tell people they can do the same.”
Rodney Wimbush said he will be forever grateful that his wife decided to bring up a conversation about blood types in the office restroom last year.
He’s looking ahead to more years with Tia and their two sons, while Lance Ellis said he’s anticipating a more active life with Susan and his two stepdaughters.
“I feel great — better than I have in the past 10 years,” he said. “I’m excited about another chance at life.”
Although the two couples have not yet gotten together to celebrate the success of the two transplants, they will make up for lost time this fall, Tia Wimbush said.
“Susan and Lance are going to come with us to North Carolina for our son’s first college football game,” she said. “I guess you could say we’ve skipped the friendship. We’re family now.”