‘A second birth’: Austin man in need of kidney transplant meets donor for first time

Austin

Alex Odonnell, left, found his perfect match kidney donor through a North Austin community Facebook group. Janneke Parrish, right, quietly began the process of becoming an organ donor after reading about Odonnell’s journey on the group’s Facebook page. (KXAN Photo/Kelsey Thompson)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Janneke Parrish had never met Alex Odonnell, an Austin man battling kidney failure and in need of an organ transplant. But his story, and those of chronic illnesses, rang familiar to her.

“I’ve not had anybody in my family with kidney — with kidney dialysis or kidney failure in the past, but I’ve had family members with health issues that are chronic and that require a lot of a lot of intensive care to manage,” Parrish said. “So for me, when I saw Alex’s story, I thought a lot about my own family and how much I wish I could make a difference for them.”

Parrish joined Better Together, a North Austin community Facebook group, during the February winter storm to help assist those in need of food, shelter and resources. It was during that time she came across Odonnell’s story and the emergency surgery he underwent in February when his kidney and heart failures reached critical levels.

Since 2017, Odonnell’s livelihood has been dependent on dialysis as he’s awaited a kidney transplant. In July, he’ll debut a new, healthy kidney and a second chance at life, his wife says.

On Saturday, Parrish met Odonnell and his wife, Amber “Olive” Reitz, for the first time. Meeting over coffee and tea, Reitz said they found a lot of similarities in one another as fellow “transplants” — although, not the kind of transplants related to Odonnell’s upcoming surgery. Both are transplants to Austin and bonded over their shared experiences and interests.

“The first thing I did when I saw her was like, I just felt compelled to give her a hug,” Reitz said. “I know that what she’s about to do…you know, there are no words for that type of selflessness.”

A perfect kidney match is reliant on the same tissue type, a compatible blood type and a negative serum crossmatch test, or a series of blood tests to monitor blood and organ interactions between a prospective donor and the transplant recipient. Parrish privately began the prospective donor match process after seeing Reitz’s posts about her husband’s disease progression.

After passing an initial health screening, Parrish underwent a more intensive health screening that tested her kidneys’ functioning levels, as well as her own physical, mental and emotional health. Donating an organ can have a profound mental and emotional impact on some people, Parrish said, and transplant specialists wanted to make sure she was aware of these effects and could withstand them.

“It was reading Alex’s story, seeing the pictures of Alex….basically fitting his experiences into what I knew from my own life and what I knew from my family members, and understanding that having a chronic illness and having something that is ultimately life threatening, that it leaves a huge impact,” she said. “And if something can be done to help alleviate that, then I’m happy to do it.”

She also reflected on Odonnell’s age, and the ways dialysis can diminish one’s quality of life. Parrish said her father had a college friend who was diagnosed with kidney failure at 19, and whose adult life revolved around dialysis, pain and a never-ending wait for a kidney transplant.

Odonnell is 34 years old. Someone as young as he is should have better prospects than what were left for her father’s friend, Parrish said.

For Odonnell, he said he wants to raise awareness not just about what’s happening to him, but the pervasiveness of the disease and how it’s impacting people of all ages and backgrounds. Dialysis takes its own physical toll on patients, in addition to the disease itself.

Walking into a center where people are dying is a sobering reality, he said. His hope is that as more people will become organ donors as more awareness surrounding the disease increases.

“There’s no such thing as, you’re too young or too old to donate. You still can donate no matter how old you are, just to make an effort” he said. “There’s someone out there who has their dad or their grandfather who needs it and are just trying to survive.”

While Parrish initially set out to serve as Odonnell’s donor, the luck of her match has doubled: An anonymous couple in need of a kidney transplant also matches Parrish’s blood and tissue types.

Because male and female kidneys vary slightly in size, the anonymous male donor more closely matches Odonnell’s kidney needs and will donate to him, while Parrish will donate her spare to the woman in need of a transplant.

The four of them — Parrish, Odonnell and the couple — are scheduled to undergo surgery July 15. The date will be one forever imprinted in each of their lives, Reitz said.

“A lot of kidney failure patients feel like this is really a second birth” she said. “So you know, this will be a date that we all celebrate together every year.”

Have a story idea or news tip? Reach KXAN’s Digital Reporter Kelsey Thompson by email at kelsey.thompson@kxan.com, by phone at 512-703-5300 or find her on Twitter.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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