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Littleton father, daughter promote paired donation after successful kidney transplants

Rare 'kidney exchange' at Children's Hospital Colorado
Posted at 10:00 PM, Dec 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 14:25:27-05

AURORA, Colo. — On a dark morning in March, just before the world locked down from the pandemic, a Littleton father and his teenage daughter took a leap of faith.

Cell phone video shows them driving to Children's Hospital Colorado, preparing for surgery.

"No hesitation whatsoever. None," said Jon Gellner. "It’s my daughter. It's her life. It's her health."

Tara Gellner and her twin sister Tessa had a rare prenatal condition called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, which meant Tara's kidneys did not get the nutrients they needed.

She had her first kidney transplant at just 3 years old. By the time she was 15, that organ was wearing out. Her parents were not a match. Jon Gellner was the wrong blood type, and Ann Gellner, her mother, could not donate her kidney for medical reasons.

"Even though dad wasn't the right blood type, there's this thing called paired donation that was really starting to take off and it may be something we could do," said Ann Gellner.

In paired donations, sometimes called "kidney exchanges," transplant centers can arrange a nationwide swap when a living donor and their recipient are not compatible. The living donor gives a kidney to someone who is a match, and the recipient gets a kidney from someone who is a match.

"It’s becoming more and more common," said Dr. Margaret Bock, the medical director of Children's Hospital Colorado's Kidney Transplant program. "The chances of getting a good, living donor kidney or any kidney at all are so, so much higher than if we were just waiting for a deceased donor."

More than 40% of the kidney transplants performed this year at Children’s Hospital Colorado have been from living donors but very few of those are paired donations.

With dialysis looming for Tara, the Gellner family could not wait. Jon Gellner, Tara's father went to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital to donate his kidney to a stranger in Colorado. On the same day just across the street, his daughter Tara went to Children's Hospital Colorado to receive a kidney from a stranger in Texas.

Father and daughter, recovering a home together on lockdown, during a pandemic.

"I'm not going to lie, it was difficult," said Jon Gellner, who said once he recovered from the surgery, his life has gone back to normal. "As far as how I feel, I feel great. I do the same things. I run. I ride bikes. I just climbed three fourteeners over the summer. I don't feel any different than I did before."

Tara Gellner, now 16 years old, recovered much faster.

"After the surgery I felt amazing," she said.

Dr. Bock said the surgery went well, and while they will continue to monitor the kidney, the prognosis is good.

"We now have a healthy happy teenager, who is ready to do all the things," said Dr. Bock. "She's going to graduate from high school and go on to do all the things that she wants to because her kidney function is beautiful."

The Gellner family is sharing their story now because paired donation wasn't even available 20 years ago. Now, it has given Tara a chance at a healthy life, and her father would give anything to make that happen.

"I would do it again if I had to," said Jon Gellner.