Lowell native gives a kidney to a stranger -- now a friend
DRACUT -- Shannon Gouveia had never even heard of live kidney donation, but when she discovered the Facebook page of a stranger who needed a kidney, she felt compelled to give.
As soon as Gouveia read Olga Gauthier's story on Facebook and started looking into live kidney donation, she had a feeling she was meant to be a donor for Gauthier.
"I can't even explain it; it just felt so right," she said in an interview at Gauthier's home in Dracut.
When Gouveia went to get tested to see if she was a match for Gauthier, there were other people ahead of her being tested.
"I thought, that's fine, because I knew it's going to be me." said Gouveia.
Gauthier, who has polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, needed a new kidney and was looking for a live donor. She had been put on the transplant list in June 2010.
None of her family or friends were a match and she was desperate to find a donor. She had heard about other people looking for donors who started a Facebook page, so in January, she started the page, "Kidney for Olga."
"I was waiting for nothing, so I had to take matters into my own hands," she said.
Gouveia's sister saw Gauthier's page through a friend of hers and sent the page to Gouveia.
The similarities between Gouveia and Gauthier are remarkable.
Both are 39. Both are mothers. They grew up in Lowell. Gouveia graduated from Greater Lowell Technical High School with Gauthier's twin brother, but they didn't know each other.
When the two women met for the first time, two days before the transplant, they felt as though they had known each other for years.
"We talked like I knew her forever, like how you can just pick up a conversation with your best friend," said Gouveia.
They now call themselves sisters and say they will be lifelong friends.
When Gauthier found out she had a matching donor, she said she was overwhelmed.
"I'm so grateful," she said to Gouveia.
Gouveia went through rigorous months of testing before she found out she was an eligible donor -- tests that included blood samples (at one time they drew 21 tubes of blood), two appointments with psychiatrists, an appointment with a nutritionist, another with a counselor, and a physical.
Donors have to have to be healthy and have no family history of kidney disease.
Meanwhile Gauthier went into kidney failure and started dialysis in July. For more than three months she worked full time at her dental-assisting job, and three days a week for four hours she went to dialysis at Lowell General Hospital's Saints Campus.
When she got home from treatment, she couldn't spend time with her 4-year-old daughter, Ava, because she was so exhausted. She calls herself lucky that she only had to go through that for three months. Many patients are on dialysis for years, she said.
Gauthier didn't know she had PKD, a genetic disorder, until it was discovered through an autopsy that her sister, who died in a car accident, had it.
Three of the other five children also have it. Gauthier is the only one who has developed symptoms. When she was pregnant, she developed high blood pressure and was put on bed rest at 26 weeks. Ava was delivered through emergency cesarean section when Gauthier was 30 weeks pregnant.
After her pregnancy, Gauthier's symptoms increased.
The transplant was done on Oct. 15 at Lahey Clinic in Burlington. There were no complications, and Gauthier's body immediately accepted the kidney. Gouveia is back to work, and Gauthier is still recovering.
Over the past five years, more than 6,200 transplants were made possible by living donors, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Better genetic matches between living donors and recipients is known to decrease the risk of organ rejection compared to organs from deceased donors.
Of the more than 100,000 on the national organ waiting list, 94,583 are waiting for a kidney transplant, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. In 2008, more than 4,500 kidney transplant candidates died while on the waiting list.
Gouveia, a mother of three children and a grandmother of one, said she had complete support from her family and friends, although some people do tell her she is crazy to have given her kidney to a stranger.
She said once she learned you can live a normal and healthy life with one kidney, she felt completely safe going through with the donation.
Gouveia, who works in the Lowell City Clerk's Office, was given a paid leave of absence due to City Council enacting an ordinance that allows city employees who wish to donate organs to take a leave.
Gauthier's insurance paid all of Gouveia's medical expenses relating to the donation.
Gouveia said she would donate her kidney again in a heartbeat if she could.
"It's the best feeling in the world," she said.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.