From Burlington, Vt., To Pittsburgh, Pa: The Path to UPMC
As an English Learner teacher in Burlington, Vt., Rebekah Thomas is used to helping others overcome challenges. She’s dedicated her career to teaching elementary English to refugees and immigrants from all over the world. So, it came as no surprise to her family and friends when she donated a kidney and a portion of her liver to two individuals whom she had never met.
Rebekah first learned about living donation when one of her students needed a kidney and liver transplant. The student’s family traveled to UPMC from Vermont for the surgeries, where the father donated a portion of his liver, and a friend donated a kidney.
“When I found out that was possible, I wondered if I would step forward if someone asked,” said Rebekah. “And I thought that I probably would.”
This revelation and a chat with her former student’s mother brought Rebekah to UPMC. “She only had wonderful things to say about UPMC, so I reached out to become a living donor,” said Rebekah.
First a Liver, Then a Kidney
Rebekah was evaluated to become a living-liver donor and donated a portion of her healthy liver in July 2019 to a woman she had never met.
“The process was really smooth, and the care was excellent,” said Rebekah.
She felt such a connection with the transplant program and the living donation process that she returned to UPMC in fall 2020 to donate a kidney to an unknown recipient.
“I had the kidney evaluation when I went for my one-year liver checkup,” she said. “I was approved to donate, then there was discussion about potential transplant dates. When they selected a date that happened to be my birthday, I said that I’d love to donate on my birthday.”
One of Rebekah’s healthy kidneys was transplanted into her recipient, and both have done well in their recoveries. Rebekah experienced a bit of fatigue after her surgery, and she was careful to stay hydrated and follow her physician’s instructions.
Rebekah has since met the recipients of her kidney and liver and describes the feeling as “a mutual awe.”
She said, “I saw my kidney recipient six months after surgery. Just to see him smiling, laughing, and full of energy blew my mind that my kidney made that happen.”
Rising to the Challenge
Rebekah remains active in the transplant community through her participation in online support groups and communicates regularly with other living donors. In March 2022, she embarked on an eight-day climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, with 21 other living-kidney donors.
This was an advocacy hike to bring awareness to living donation, demonstrate what is possible post-donation, and inspire and educate others about living donation.
“We wanted to go as a group of kidney donors to show that you can be a living donor and still do sports and thrive with one kidney,” said Rebekah, who is also a distance runner.
The group met in person for the first time when they landed in Tanzania. They summited the mountain on the sixth night of their climb, which fell on World Kidney Day.
“There was a sense of community and family that allowed us to reach our goal,” Rebekah said. “We showed each other that we could do it.”
Rebekah advocates for living donation and hopes that her story will inspire others to become living donors.
“It’s heartbreaking for me to think about how many people are on the waiting list,” she said. “I wanted to help give their life back. I want to show by example what can be done.”
Rebekah's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.