A Woman's Good Gesture Leads to a Chain of Kidney Donations


What began as a routine trip to the sandwich shop led to a life changing moment for more than a dozen strangers from various walks of life. “I didn’t expect it at all. It was amazing when it happened,” said Kalynn Olsen.

Olsen and Heather Hansen first crossed paths at Spanky’s Deli in Bountiful where Olsen works. A frequent patron at the shop, Hansen quickly became more than a customer. “One day we were talking about life in general,” said Olsen. “I mentioned to her I needed a kidney. She looked at me and said ‘I want to give you my kidney’ and I was like whoa, really?”

At the time, Olsen had been living with Type 1 diabetes for 30 years. In 2011 doctors told her that her kidneys were functioning at 11 percent and it was time for a transplant. After agreeing to be the donor, Hansen signed up with University of Utah Health's Transplant Center where nurses and health educators prepared her for a successful kidney donation. “The whole process was just a great experience,” said Hansen. “They were really great and patient.”

On Olsen’s 50th birthday, Hansen made her usual stop at the deli, but this time with a gift. Written inside a birthday card, Hansen let Olsen know she was now cleared to donate her organ. “She came into the shop on my 50th birthday and told me,” said Olsen. “It was the best birthday present ever!”

But a last minute test showed Hansen and Olsen were not a match. “My heart just dropped. I was speechless,” Olsen said. A final blood test showed Olsen’s blood would have rejected Hansen’s tissue. “I felt like there was a reason I wasn’t a match,” Hansen said. “I knew it was going to be a good reason.” It’s a result that occurs only five percent of the time. “I felt I was back at square one,” Olsen said. But it didn’t discourage doctors; they saw it as an opportunity to possibly help others.

Doctors with University of Utah Health's organ transplant center found a solution. It resulted in a domino effect across the transplant program. Even though Hansen wasn’t a match for Olsen, she was able to enroll in an exchange program that would lead Olsen to the best kidney match for her. “I was actually hoping I could get Heather’s but this worked out,” said Olsen. “The kidney team told me it was a perfect match.”

Through the paired exchange program at University Hospital, Hansen was able to donate her kidney to a third person in California. In return Olsen was paired with a kidney from a man in Indiana. But Olsen wasn’t the only patient to benefit from the exchange program. More than a dozen people across the country were given a new kidney that week. Olsen says she has a new connection to the Midwest, “I’m a Hoosier now. “

Olsen’s kidney transplant was part of a series of transplants that affected so many others. “I want people to know there are so many people like me who need a kidney,” said Olsen. “You can donate your organs whether you’re alive or dead.” Nearly 45 percent of the hospital’s kidney transplants are from living donors.

With the continuous care from U of U Health doctors like Fuad Shihab, MD. Olsen continues to thrive. “My doctor says I’m a poster patient,” said Olsen. “Doctors say I’m looking good, nothing to worry about.” Through the combination of a stranger’s good heart and the determination of doctors at University Hospital, Olsen was given a new lease on life, while Hansen served as the catalyst for a chain of donations that helped transplant patients nationwide.

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