Transplant nurse donates own kidney to patient

Jan. 13, 2012 at 2:36 PM ET

Emory University Hospital /
Transplant nurse Allison Batson donated one of her kidneys to Clay Taber, 23, a patient who desperately needed a transplant.

The way Clay Taber looks at it, he’s got three moms now.

There’s the woman who gave birth to him and raised him, of course. Then there’s his fiancée’s mother.

And then there’s the transplant nurse who, though practically a stranger, donated one of her healthy kidneys so that he might start married life untethered to a dialysis machine.

Allison Batson first heard about Taber, now 23, in August 2010, when a charge nurse at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital told her “it looks like we’ve got an admission from Columbus, Ga. It’s a 22-year-old in renal failure,” Batson recalled.. “It just tore me up.”

Due to a shortage of rooms elsewhere in the hospital, Taber was admitted to the seventh-floor transplant unit, which usually is reserved for patients who’ve already received new organs. Although Batson, 48, wasn’t assigned to care for Taber at first, she stuck her head in his room and said, “I hear there’s a good-looking young man in here.”

Taber had felt fine until right after his 22nd birthday on Aug. 6, 2010, when he started having night sweats. His dad figured it must be nerves, what with him newly graduated from Auburn University and shopping for an engagement ring.

In late August, though, Taber saw a doctor who ordered tests. His mom, Sandra Taber, was grocery shopping when the doctor’s office called to say her son was in complete kidney failure and needed to be hospitalized immediately.

Tests revealed he had Goodpasture syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys or the lungs. Symptoms can appear in a matter of days.

According to the National Library of Medicine, Goodpasture syndrome can be triggered by a viral respiratory infection or by inhaling hydrocarbon solvents. Taber wonders if swimming in the oil-slicked Gulf of Mexico a few weeks before he became ill might be the culprit in his case.

He spent the next month in the hospital, during which he underwent dialysis and plasmapheresis to try to remove the antibodies that had attacked his kidneys. As the weeks passed, Batson bonded with his mother. “I really could relate to his mom and the helplessness that she felt,” says Batson, the mother of four, ages 16 to 27, one of whom has a form of autoimmune arthritis. ”I really felt for her watching her baby go through this.”

Once Taber was strong enough, he was to be placed on the waiting list for a cadaver kidney. Currently, 90,000 U.S. patients are waiting for a donor kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Taber says he was told he could expect to wait three to five years.

But Batson had another idea – to offer him one of hers.

“I know this sounds crazy, and it may never happen, but this young man reminds me of one of our kids,” Batson told her husband. “To my knowledge, I was healthy enough, and my kids were grown. I’m just kind of an optimistic person.”

Batson knew Taber couldn’t be transplanted immediately because doctors wanted to be sure his disease was in remission so his immune system wouldn’t attack his new kidney. Last August, when Taber’s mom stopped by to say hello when he was back for a checkup, Batson volunteered her kidney.

“Sandra, you might think I’m weird, but you guys have really been heavy on my mind,” Batson told her. ”I just want you to know that I’m willing to step forward and be tested as a donor.”

Clay Taber says he was “astounded” by her generosity. “I went back and gave her a big hug and told her how much it meant to me. I’ll be honest, I kind of broke down in front of her.”

After tests ruled out the chance of a donation from Taber’s immediate family, Batson was tested and found to be a match. “The only thing I was nervous about in this entire process was that somebody was going to tell us we couldn’t do it,” she says.

Emory has no policy about employees donating organs, spokesman Lance Skelly says. “While we certainly support and applaud Allison’s selfless decision, these are important choices that only a potential donor and his or her loved ones can make.”

The surgery went off Tuesday without a hitch. Batson and Taber hope to be released by Friday evening.

Only about 6,000 living donor transplants are performed each year in the United States, Dr. Nicole Turgeon, Taber’s surgeon, said Friday afternoon at a press conference at Emory. “This is a major reason why we’re here today, to raise awareness about organ donations,” Turgeon said.

Batson expects to return to work in six weeks, and Taber and his fiancée, Laura Calhoun are to be married in June.

“I told [Batson] she’s going to get a special dance at the wedding,” Taber says. “She can pick out the song.”

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