Central Florida families meet after kidney transplants

Donor meets kidney transplant patient in Orlando.
Donor meets kidney transplant patient in Orlando. (Copyright 2020 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Hallie Thomas barely resisted the urge to run over and hug Jamie McKenzie on Nov. 23 when they met at AdventHealth Orlando — three months after both donated a kidney to save the life of each other’s loved one.

Thomas, a 34-year-old teacher from Winter Garden, gave one of her kidneys to McKenzie’s 4-year-old daughter Emery. McKenzie, a 32-year-old nurse living in New Smyrna Beach, donated a kidney to Thomas’ husband, Richard. The four surgeries happened in August through AdventHealth Transplant Institute’s living donor program.

COVID protocols meant the two families sat apart during their meeting on Nov. 23, but the smiles of both women were obvious behind their masks.

“I’m so thankful we’re getting this opportunity to meet them,” Thomas said.

McKenzie said she knew when she was 20 weeks pregnant with Emery that her daughter would have chronic kidney problems after doctors discovered cysts on her kidneys. Neither McKenzie nor Emery’s father, Robert Bock, were a match to be donors.

“We were very, very fortunate to have found this couple as soon as we did, because (Emery) was right on the verge of starting dialysis,” McKenzie said.

The timing was also right for Richard Thomas, who got one of McKenzie’s kidneys.

Thomas, 35, has suffered from kidney disease most of his life and had both hips replaced because of grueling chemotherapy treatment.

The paired donation forged a permanent bond between the two families, he said, and improved his quality of life.

“A piece of Hallie is a part of their family and their family is a part of our family,” he said. “For as long as I have this kidney — for as long as I’m alive — that family and that gesture is going to mean a lot to us.”

Dr. Michael Angelis, surgical director of kidney transplants at AdventHealth, performed the transplants and said there’s a huge need for donors. The National Kidney Foundation estimates about 100,000 people in the U.S. are waiting on a transplant.

“We do a lot of transplants, but to get a story like this, it’s very exciting,” Angelis said, adding that it’s rare for transplant patients to live in the same region.

Thomas and McKenzie signed up for the paired donation program, which is designed to match a recipient to a donor in a similar situation. By exchanging donors from their family, Richard and Emery were able to find a compatible match.

Since the surgery, McKenzie said Emery’s recovery has been going smoothly.

“My hopes are for her to grow up healthy, to have a chance at a normal life, to not be so scared to come to the hospital,” she said. “This poor girl has been through a lot in her life.”

The Thomases said the connection forged through their families’ medical journeys will last forever and will likely include play dates with their son Talan, who is the same age as Emery.

Hallie is looking forward to finally getting to embrace McKenzie.

“I have every intention of planning the reunion, multiple reunions, from here until the end of time – a time when COVID doesn’t exist and I can wrap my arms around her and give her the biggest hug,” she said.