BANGOR, Maine — A quartet of women — three of them from Maine and one from New Jersey — gathered in Hermon over the weekend to celebrate the successful outcome of two organ transplants that came about through what they say was a circuitous series of events and small miracles.
Two years ago, Deb Gunn of Holden began suffering from severe headaches and other symptoms associated with chronic kidney disease.
In June 2014, she learned that she had a genetic kidney condition called Alport syndrome that either would require a lifetime of dialysis or a new kidney.
Her father was diagnosed with the condition “years and years ago,” Gunn said Sunday during a gathering in Hermon.
While researching her options, Gunn came across the profile of Sheri Gould of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in an online forum for people who need kidneys. Gould also needed a kidney as she had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited condition that her mother and younger brother had.
Gould’s older brother, Dean Gould, had hoped to give her one of his kidneys, but he was not a good blood-type match.
“I wrote to her. We had a lot in common, so we corresponded and talked on the phone and just made friends because we were going through the same thing,” Gunn said.
Gunn said her identical twin, Barbara Cookson of Hermon, was prepared to donate one of her kidneys. The two would have been a perfect match, however, their transplant doctor decided at the last minute not to proceed with the sister-to-sister organ transfer.
That’s when a friend of Cookson, Mary Butler of Hope, stepped in and offered Gunn one of her kidneys.
After undergoing screening and testing, however, Butler was not deemed a suitable match for Gunn. Gunn did eventually receive a kidney from friend Mary Tower Pettegrow of Levant on Aug. 18, 2015.
After learning Gunn and Butler were not a match, Gunn mentioned that Sheri Gould was in need of a kidney.
Butler said that since she already had undergone the medical, surgical and psychological evaluation required to show she was a suitable donor, she figured she was going to go ahead and donate a kidney anyway.
“It did not matter to me if I knew the person,” Butler said.
Further testing determined that Butler and Gould were a match.
“The stars were aligned,” Butler said Sunday.
The match was life-changing news for Gould.
“That’s why this is so awesome — she didn’t even know me,” Gould said during Sunday’s gathering at Cookson’s home.
That transplant happened on Feb. 16.
The procedure began at Maine Medical Center’s Maine Transplant Program in Portland, where one of Butler’s kidneys was removed.
The organ was taken to Boston, and from there, it was flown to Philadelphia, home of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Transplant Institute, and transplanted into Gould.
Gould, Gunn and Butler met in person for the first time at dinner on Friday. On Saturday, there was a party at Cookson’s home to celebrate the newly formed friendships and the successful transplant outcomes resulting from them. About 35 people attended — many of them members of Butler’s family.
“We just wanted to get together and meet each other and celebrate,” Butler said.
The women shared their stories in hopes of inspiring others to make living kidney donations, which compared to transplants performed from deceased donors have a lower risk of rejection and can take place at a time convenient for both the donor and recipient.
The need for kidney donors is great.
There are nearly 100,800 people awaiting kidney transplants in the U.S., according to the National Kidney Foundation. On average, more than 3,000 people are added to the kidney waiting list each month and 13 of them die each day while waiting for a kidney to become available.
In Maine, 44 kidney transplants were conducted in 2015, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network. There are 103 Maine residents on the kidney transplant waiting list.
“It doesn’t cost anything to ask for information and someone will benefit from it,” Gunn said. “There’s really no risk” to inquiring.
Butler noted that as a donor, her medical costs were covered by Gould’s health insurance. She also said that it was made clear to her that had she developed qualms, she could have pulled out at any time — even while being wheeled into the operating room.
For more information about becoming an organ donor in Maine, visit the Maine Transplant Program at www.mmc.org.