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Little Village man's generosity sparks four-way kidney transplant

Roberto Mata-Martinez has generosity in his blood — even in extreme circumstances.

So when his wife, who had been on dialysis since 2008, needed a kidney transplant, he selflessly offered up one of his.

The two matched, based on their blood types and other factors.

Maile Reddy, 30, of Hawaii, met her kidney donor Wednesday morning at Northwestern Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Center. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

But doctors and coordinators at Northwestern Memorial Hospital ran his tests through a donor database and found his kidney could better benefit Maile Reddy, 30.

Mata-Martinez didn’t hesitate. His altruistic donation didn’t help just Reddy, a nurse from Honolulu. It set in motion a successful four-way domino paired kidney exchange involving eight patients.

Mata-Martinez, a west suburban grocery store employee, donated a kidney to Reddy; the kidney of another nurse in Hawaii saved a Walgreens store employee from Hainesville; the kidney of a stay-at-home mom from Pecatonica, in northwest Illinois, helped save a dietitian from Edison Park; and the kidney of a Chicago student saved the life of Mata-Martinez’s wife, Veronica Barrera of Little Village.

“I wanted to give it to my wife, but I didn’t care. I knew that we were compatible — but when they asked me if I was willing to give it to somebody else, and some other people will be getting this gift, I was willing to do that,” Mata-Martinez, 34, said through a Spanish interpreter. “I was happy to give it.”

On Nov. 13 and 14, transplant surgeons at Northwestern completed the eight surgeries successfully.

Thirteen days later, seven of the eight patients met face to face in Chicago. The eighth patient, a donor in Hawaii, spoke with the young woman she helped via a video chat on her phone.

Doug Penrod, the outreach coordinator for Northwestern Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Center, said these surgeries are now routinely done at the hospital. But this group was something different.

“This is a special group,” Penrod told those who donated or received kidneys. “Especially at this time of the year, and the fact that so many of you of the recipients were so very difficult to be able to get transplants due to incompatibilities.”

Samantha Kahly, 29, of Hainesville, met her kidney donor, Ashley Takafuji, of Hawaii, Wednesday morning during a video chat. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

‘Almost like it was meant to be’

For Samantha Kahly, 29, of northwest suburban Hainesville, the donation was extra rare. Kahly already had undergone a transplant in 1990, at 5. And she had antibodies that prevented her from being matched with another donor.

She had just a 1 percent chance of finding a donor. But she did. “Without her, I probably would not have a kidney,” Kahly said.

She got the call in October while working. “I started freaking out. It was pretty amazing. I had been waiting for just a year,” Kahly said. “They said it would take three to five years on the waiting list. I never expected it to take a year.”

Kahly said she took a deep breath, went into an office, then bawled her eyes out and called her mother. “I just couldn’t believe it,” Kahly said.

Kahly received one of Ashley Takafuji’s kidneys. The 31-year-old nurse from Honolulu first tested to donate her kidney to Reddy, her longtime friend.

Instead it saved a woman with an extremely rare chance of surviving.

“Who are you?” Takafuji asked as Kahly spoke with her on video chat.

“I would be your recipient from your kidney,” Kahly said. “My name is Samantha.”

Takafuji cried and asked, “How are you doing?”

“I’m good. Thank you very much for your donation,” Kahly said.

“I’m so glad,” Takafuji said, sobbing.

“This is actually my second transplant. I’m hoping for 30 years with your kidney,” Kahly said. “I’m shooting high.”

“She only had a 1 percent chance. Oh my gosh. It’s crazy. Almost like it was meant to be,” Takafuji later said.

‘Generosity . . . that’s what allows these big exchanges to happen’

The four donors involved in the four-pair domino exchange had the same answer when asked what ran through their minds when they were asked to donate to a stranger.

Veronica Barrera, 36, of the Little Village neighborhood, met her kidney donor Wednesday morning. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

“I was really taken aback, but to help just another person out to have a second chance of a longer life, it’s a no-brainer,” Takafuji said.

“If there was a better match for her, it was a no-brainer,” said Nora Leathers, 32, who donated a kidney to Barrera, Mata-Martinez’s wife.

Their “no-brainer” acts helped save lives.

“The generosity of people who step forward, even though they’re compatible to other people, that’s what allows these big exchanges to happen,” said Dr. John Friedewald, transplant nephrologist and director of clinical research for the transplant center.

Northwestern’s living donor program and its database aim to try to find the best matches for those in need of organs. And while some family members and friends immediately match their loved ones, those who choose to donate their organs to the best match often end up saving many lives.

Northwestern’s team combs through the matches every Monday to see which pairs come up, and which transplants can be made.

“A lot of people made some important decisions here, but we’re lucky to have some favorable blood types and the special sauce [Mata-Martinez’s altruistic donation] to make this happen,” Friedewald said.

The group that reunited on Wednesday also met with the dozens of doctors, nurses, social workers and coordinators who helped manage their transplants. They smiled and watched as donors and recipients hugged and cried when they met each other.

“The results are pretty amazing, when you see it like this,” Friedewald said. “This is why we do what we do. This is the good part.”