Rosenblum: Donor and recipient celebrate their lucky meeting

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2012 - 7:07 PM
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Pat Jensen, left, and Shirley Otto met by chance in a hospital waiting room.

Photo: , University of Minnesota Medical Center

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Organ donation leaped boldly into the 21st century two weeks ago, with Facebook allowing users to declare their organ-donor status to the immediate world. How's it working?

In the first six days of the initiative, more than 33,000 Facebook users posted donor designations, including nearly 900 in Minnesota (www.donatelifemn.org).

Soon after, the media jumped on news that Sarah Hyland, "Modern Family's" perpetually annoyed teenager, Haley Dunphy, is recovering after receiving a kidney from her father. That led the actress's TV mom, Julie Bowen, to tweet: "Congrats to my adorably healthy tv daughter. Yay kidney transplants!"

Not to take anything away from these two heartening stories, but Pat Jensen and Shirley Otto remind us that there's still a place for old-fashioned social networking in the world of organ donation. Jensen and Otto started chatting in a hospital waiting room. Now they're linked forever, with one of Otto's kidneys giving Jensen new life.

"She is my angel," a teary Jensen said of Otto, as the two celebrated together Tuesday at a living-donor event sponsored by the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.

Jensen, 60, of Cologne, Minn., said she got "the shock of my life" when her doctor told her in April 2010 that her kidneys were shutting down. She received a clean bill of health the previous October, but hadn't been feeling great since.

Her doctor told her to call her husband, Dwayne, and get to the hospital quickly. She began dialysis immediately, struggling with the news that the average wait for a donor kidney from someone deceased is five years. Denial quickly turned to resolve for Jensen, the mother of two adult children and grandmother of four.

On Sept. 23, 2010, Jensen was wrapping up several days of tests before being placed on the donor waiting list. She noticed a woman in the waiting room much of the day, but they didn't speak.

Otto, 47, of Osakis, Minn., was at the university for her own battery of tests. A few weeks earlier, she was moved to action by the story of another woman who had been awaiting a kidney for five years. "I had an overwhelming feeling to donate," Otto said. "I decided that it was what I was supposed to do."

Otto, the mother of three adult children, was about to find out if she was a match when the woman received a kidney from a man who had died. "What am I supposed to do now?" she wondered. Within days, she saw a Facebook post about a little boy who needed a kidney. She decided to go forward with the evaluation to help the boy, if she could. (She later learned she was not a match for him).

Otto had been at the university since early morning for extensive tests. She was returning to the waiting area after talking with a surgeon when she and Jensen finally talked.

"It was 4:07 p.m." Jensen said. "That's when we connected. God gave me a big mouth for a reason."

"You waiting, too?" Jensen asked Otto.

"No, donating," Otto said.

"The world needs more people like you," Jensen said, adding jokingly, "I wish I could get your kidney."

When they discovered they had the same blood type, Otto smiled. "Give me your name, address and phone number and I'll tell my coordinator," she said. Jensen wrote down her contact information on the back of a business card and handed it to Otto. Then Jensen and her husband walked away.

"I didn't even get her name," Jensen said of Otto.

Two months passed. Jensen figured the possibility of that afternoon "fell through the cracks."

On Nov. 6, Jensen got a call that a living donor had been found. Soon after, that donor called, even though she wasn't supposed to. "This is Shirley. I'm the one you met in the lobby!"

"She kept calling me," Jensen said, smiling. "She kept saying, 'I'm not nuts. I still want to do this.'"

Cathy Garvey, clinical director at UMMC's transplant program, said "our antennae went up" when first notified about Otto and Jensen. "We wanted to make sure there were no unusual arrangements being made," Garvey said. Confirming that all protocols were met, the duo got the green light.

On Jan. 18, 2011, Jensen kissed her family members goodbye and received one of Otto's healthy kidneys during a 7 1/2-hour operation. Otto's surgery lasted about five hours. She took eight weeks of medical leave from her work at 3M.

"Shirley is the kind of person who would do anything for anyone," Otto's partner, Shay Imdieke, said.

After the surgery, Jensen bought angel charms for Otto and herself, inscribing each with "New Life: Jan. 18, 2011."

Last July, Jensen hosted a "new life" party at the family cabin with about 60 people. "I wanted my family and friends to meet this beautiful person," she said of Otto. "She will be in my life all of my life."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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