How an Austin volunteer group connected a kidney transplant patient with a ‘perfect match’ donor

Austin

Alex Odonnell, Amber “Olive” Reitz and Kristen Harris are part of Better Together, a Northwest Austin community group that has specializes in volunteering and community efforts. Through Better Together, Alex met his perfect match: a kidney transplant donor. (KXAN Photo/Kelsey Thompson)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For patients in need of a kidney transplant, the probability of finding a perfect match in a sibling is 25%. In strangers? That likelihood is negligible.

It was a shot in the dark that Austin resident Alex Odonnell would find a kidney match — even less so in a community Facebook group with 500 members.

But for Odonnell, those odds were in his favor.

Odonnell found his perfect match in a complete stranger via Better Together, an Austin community volunteering and good deeds group launched in October. Kristen Harris, the organization’s founder, said she was compelled to create a space for people to give back and find refuge during a time that had left many struggling physically, mentally and financially.

“It’s been gradual, but our missions have gradually evolved as well,” she said, adding, “We were in the middle of the COVID crisis and realized how many people have been traumatized — people that were in housing and people who are out of housing, and how much need there was for assistance in their daily lives.”

Focal points of the organization came in creating care packages for those experiencing homelessness in northwest Austin and providing food, first aid kits and other necessities. On average, the organization supplies approximately 12 families with a week’s worth of groceries each month and feeds more than 200 people experiencing homelessness on a monthly basis.

“We wanted a place on social media that you could come, and you could get your bucket filled with positivity and humanity [by] coming together as a group to rally and actually take care of people,” she said.

But when it comes to some of those standout moments, Harris said Odonnell’s journey to finding a kidney in the likes of a fellow group member rises to the top.

“Not only did they find a match, they found a perfect match. And then that perfect match came from our group? I mean, it’s miraculous.”

kristen harris, founder of “better together”

Odonnell was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2017 after noticing some swelling in his leg. Working as a delivery worker at Amazon, he frequently would walk upwards of 10 miles each day on his routes. Now at 34 years old, he’s lost more than 100 pounds, in part due to dialysis, and nearly died in February as backlogged fluids filled his lungs and labored his breathing.

Odonnell’s wife, Amber “Olive” Reitz, has been documenting his search for a kidney match for months, launching a GoFundMe to help account for some of the expenses related to the couple’s journey. Odonnell is currently out of work due to the intensity and frequency of his dialysis appointments, while Reitz has run out of PTO hours to care for him and take him to his appointments.

“It’s been real touch and go,” Harris said about Odonnell’s donor prospects. “And so to get that news from Olive, you know, a week ago or so that not only did they find a match, they found a perfect match. And then that perfect match came from our group? I mean, it’s miraculous.”

A perfect kidney match is dependent on three key ingredients, per Fresenius Kidney Care: 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.

The odds for Odonnell were looking bleak, he said. Dialysis is an aggressive and demanding treatment process and isn’t required of kidney failure patients, Odonnell said, but if dialysis is discontinued, patients are admitted into hospice for end-of-life care.

Then came his donor: an anonymous group member who quietly began the donor match process as Reitz documented her husband’s disease progression.

This weekend, Reitz and Odonnell will meet the donor for the first time ahead of her “sharing her spare” on July 7, as Reitz refers to it.

“I mean, not only has she — not only was she like, ‘I’m a perfect match,’ but she was like, ‘you know, we’re going to be family now,'” Reitz said.

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