Four pair up for kidney transplants

Courtesy photos/ Top: Altoona Area High School teachers Jim and Jennifer Lowe, Right: Ford Liberto of Pittsburgh is shown at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Seventeen-year-old Ford Liberto envisions a future in which people could be like the iconic movie character The Terminator, with bionic organ transplants.

But the day when that miracle of modern medicine no longer requires a gift of a human organ donor hasn’t come yet.

Liberto, a pair of Altoona teachers who are husband and wife and a police detective from Ohio are all doing well after a Dec. 18 organ swap at UPMC Montefiore hospital.

Liberto, of Pittsburgh, has returned to auto tech school where he enjoys the mentorship of his favorite teachers Mr. Parks and Mr. Monroe; he’s returned to hanging out with his friends in the outdoors, which he has grown to love as an Eagle Scout; and he has a new collection of model cars that he built during the weeks he recovered from his kidney transplant.

The transplant ended a difficult wait. His search for a transplant started last spring. Winter arrived and still there were no organ matches for him — none in his family nor on the national registry.

Then on Dec. 14, while his mom was at the hairdresser and his dad was at the car wash, the doctors called with a “miracle match.”

“It’s just amazing,” Liberto said.

Jim and Jennifer Lowe have been married for 15 years and first met at Altoona Area High School where Jim teaches American History and Jennifer teaches English.

Jim, 51, returned to work Monday for the first time since his kidney transplant.

It was Lowe’s second transplant in his lifetime. With good care, his first transplant lasted 22 years, though doctors stamped it with an expectancy of only about nine.

When Jim’s health declined and doctors recommended another transplant, Jennifer wanted to be first to be tested as a match.

A successful match requires more than a matching blood type. It requires other factors including antibodies. Even direct family members may not be matches for people needing organ transplants.

Surprisingly, she was indeed a match for Jim.

“It was such a good, romantic story that my wife is giving me a kidney — a part of my wife would be helping me to live,” Jim said.

Jennifer was astonished.

“The fact that we were a direct match was overwhelming,” Jennifer said. “It all seemed to be meant to be.”

But days before the scheduled surgery, the transplant team at the clinic in Pittsburgh asked Jennifer to donate to a child who had needed a kidney for months. The child had no matches. He was unmatchable, except with Jennifer.

“When we first talked to the transplant doctor, he asked us if it happened that I were a match for someone else, would I do an altruistic donation. Less than a week before the surgery we got that call,” Jennifer said. “It wasn’t a question at all for me when the doctor said it was a child who had eight relatives tested and no matches. I said, ‘Yes, let’s do this,’ and they said they already had a match for Jim who was male, and a direct blood match. … Again, the puzzle pieces were falling into place like it was meant to be.”

Detective Taylor Cleveland, 43, of the Ashtabula County Police Department in Ohio, had signed up to be a donor for a friend at work whose grandchild needed a transplant. He was not a match for him, but he stayed on the list as an altruistic donor who was willing to give without any stipulation about who receives it.

Cleveland was on the list for 18 months and hadn’t heard anything. Then medical staff called him up before Christmas and told him the story of the woman who was donating to child and needed a donor for her husband.

Cleveland admitted that his wife, Louise Marie, was not happy at first about his choice to donate his kidney to a stranger. But he has a history of making dangerous decisions.

He joined the Marine Corps Reserve after Sept. 11 and was deployed to Iraq where he saw his friends killed. He returned home to face dangers in the police force.

“I acknowledge what I’ve put my wife through. She is a saint,” Cleveland said.

All four surgeries were conducted Dec. 18. The adults’ procedures took place at UPMC Montefiore. And Jennifer’s kidney was transported to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for Liberto’s operation.

Liberto was born with congenital nephrotic syndromem, which was cured by a transplant from his mother, Jill, when he was less than 3 years old.

That transplant lasted for 15 years, much longer than average. But in the past couple of years, it began to fail him.

The family had been looking for a donor since April. A family friend from Michigan was tested and was not a match, either. However, that friend donated to a woman from Ohio who’d been waiting five years for a transplant. They have both recovered and are in good health.

Doctors didn’t tell Jill that they needed a miracle for her son — until they got one in Jennifer Lowe.

“It was a ‘miracle match,’ they said,” Jill explained.

“It was the greatest gift of all, especially because the husband of the woman who donated to Ford needed a kidney and she was going to donate to him. They could have chosen to say ‘no’ and stuck with what was safe, but they were willing to take that risk and give the gift of life to someone else,” she said. “They saved my son’s life.”

Ford’s recovery has progressed extraordinarily well, she said. He is back in school and working a job after school.

Jill said she was overwhelmed, humbled and very blessed.

She said she hopes to meet the Lowes soon.

Lowe and Cleveland have already met, serendipitously on the day of their surgery.

Federal medical privacy regulations prevent chance encounters in hospitals, but Cleveland and Lowe met in one of UPMC Montefiore hospital’s many pre-operating rooms.

With each person that rolled by on a gurney, Cleveland wondered if it was the man who would receive his kidney.

“Then, at the bed next to me, separated by a curtain, I could overhear the medical staff say that his wife’s operation was fine and the child who received the transplant will be fine,” Cleveland said. “I told my nurse, ‘That’s the guy. That’s the guy I’m giving my kidney to.'”

Initially, when Cleveland asked nurses to wheel his gurney to Lowe, they said “That’s not how this works.” But Cleveland insisted.

Lowe was shocked at the nurse’s information.

“He requested to meet me,” Lowe said. “There was that moment when I saw them rolling the stretcher over, I felt anxiety of what this person would be like. I wondered what they want to say to me. I can honestly say I could not have been more lucky or blessed to have him. We became brothers just in that half hour conversation. Our values, the way we lived our lives, we are so much alike. It was a great honor to meet him.”

Cleveland said the Lowes are “some of the greatest people on the face of the earth.”

“Going into this, I new there were chances of my kidney going to someone who maybe made life choices that contributed to the demise of their organs. But to find Lowe, who told me about his past transplant and how he took care of it for 22 years and said ‘I understand the gift I’ve been given’ — It was a blessing.”

When transplant surgeon came in, he was shocked to see the men had met and become friends.

“So he took his phone out and took a photo of us,” Cleveland said.

Two days after the surgery, Cleveland was discharged from the hospital. He’s back at work and running and lifting weights with no problems.

He encourages others to be altruistic donors.

“If you have the ability to help someone, you should help them,” he said. “And I can’t say enough about how wonderful UPMC as an organization is. If people don’t understand they are the premier kidney transplant clinic, they should.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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