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Paired Donor Exchange: A Husband and Wife’s Kidney Transplant Story

Veronica got a kidney transplant through a paired donor exchange

This post was originally published in April 2016 and updated on April 7, 2021. 

Receiving a Second Chance at Life

In 2013, Veronica Downing had a second chance at life thanks to her husband, and the paired exchange program. She needed a second kidney transplant after her mother donated her first kidney in 1996. Getting this second transplant added more years to her life. Without it, she feels she wouldn’t still be here.

Her husband, Ron Downing, wasn’t a match, but they didn’t give up. Working with the UVA Transplant Center, they entered the paired exchange program and became the first couple at UVA to participate in this.

Veronica received a new kidney, and Ron donated his to someone else. Veronica urges people not to give up if they’re not a match. This living donor program can help save someone’s life. After watching all the tests her husband went through to donate his kidney, she was confident in receiving hers. Since her transplant, she’s had a mix of good and bad days. She did battle sepsis shortly after her transplants but has since recovered from it.

Living with a Transplant

“It’s not an end, it’s a new beginning, but every day comes with a lot of variables,” Ron shares about his wife. As a transplant recipient, Veronica takes immunosuppressants to keep her immune system from rejecting the kidney. Her kidney is healthy, and each day, Veronica is still here, but this leads to more infections and a longer healing process.

After her first transplant, she finished her bachelor’s degree. After her second living donor transplant, she was able to bring her niece to the U.S. to attend college and now she works in healthcare. Veronica is very proud of both of these experiences.

Veronica and Ron celebrating her 60th birthday.

A Blessed Life

Over the years, Veronica has been very blessed since her second kidney transplant because she witnessed three grandbabies be born, her youngest son got married, and her family visited from Korea. She wasn’t able to return to work but quickly realized her priority was her family and staying healthy. Wanting to do more, her husband reminds her that she’s an inspiration to all, and she’s influencing others without knowing it.

With more energy, thinking clearly, and living a healthy life, Veronica and Ron have recently moved to a local retirement community, Richfield Living. They enjoy the simple things in life in an independent living small two-bedroom villa with a fireplace and deck facing the beautiful mountains. Ron may be retired, but as a musician, he still performs. He was more active pre-COVID, but he’s finding ways to share his love of music on social media and at church. And Veronica sings in the chorus.

They recently got the COVID-19 vaccine, as Veronica’s health is always a concern. They’re still hoping to see more data with the vaccine and transplant recipients, but now they feel a little safer.

“She’s the hero. I just did what you do for a loved one,” Ron shares. “Here I am, a blessing and an extra day is a bonus,” says Veronica.

Veronica & Ron's Story

When Veronica Downing found out she needed a second kidney transplant, her husband, Ronald, stepped up. He went through the complete evaluation, only to find out he and his wife were not a match. The two were devastated.

Want to become a living donor?

Learn more about living kidney donations at UVA.

However, UVA transplant coordinator Anita Sites informed the Downings of another option. Paired donor exchange occurs when someone steps up to be a donor, like Ronald, but is not a match for their recipient. The donor then becomes a donor for someone else. For someone they've never met, who had the same issue — a donor stepped up, but wasn't a match. That donor's kidney is then passed onto another pair, and so on and so forth until the chain has gone full circle.

Paired donor exchange can involve a number of people across the country. The ultimate goal was to find Veronica a healthy kidney, and that's exactly what happened.

View Transcript

VERONICA DOWNING: We've been married about 20 years. I met him a long time ago at the Seoul, Korea. He walked in my office by mistake.

RONALD DOWNING: We're still working out that mistake.

VERONICA DOWNING: I got kidney failure but our first was 20 years ago.

RONALD DOWNING: She's had two transplants. When I first found out that we weren't a match, your heart sinks. You're like Oh, no. The doctor told us there is another option. And so you listen when someone says, OK, we're not at the dead end here.

ANITA SITES: Paired kidney donor exchange is when a donor and recipient are not compatible with one another. And there's lots of ways you can be incompatible. It can be blood typing. It could be when we actually mix some of the donor and recipient's blood together, there could be a reaction that's not suitable.

And so if the donor and recipient are willing we can enter them into a paired exchange registry, where we can try to find a match for that recipient elsewhere, at another transplant center. It could be anywhere in the country. And so that recipient gets a kidney from another living donor that is compatible with them, and their donor who was originally intended for them, their kidney goes to someone else entirely different, somewhere else in the United States. So that, that individual is getting a compatible kidney as well. And the Downings were our first paired exchange transplant here at UVA.

VERONICA DOWNING: When I watched this old medical procedure, how they thoroughly exam all his health condition from top to the bottom and I really trust the system. So I think they will be OK, if I'm going to receive someone that I never met. Another person will be OK because the system was so thrilled.

ANITA SITES: Living kidney donation is safe. We thoroughly evaluate all of our kidney donors to make sure that if there's a reason why they shouldn't be a donor, something that's going to put them at increased risk, we're not going to let them be a donor. So that is why our evaluation is so thorough. Of course any procedure has risks associated with it, but living kidney donation has been happening for many decades now and has been proven to be safe.

RONALD DOWNING: The paired exchange is more than just two people. It is a unifying of human spirits, multiplied many times over. And like minded people that are willing to go through something like this and remain anonymous, it's a really powerful experience.

VERONICA DOWNING: Every day when I get up in the morning, thank you for another day. And I'm doing my best and make the best of it. So my attitude changed, and then this is a new chapter of my life.

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