By SUSAN JONES
It was a match made in fitness club heaven.
And no, we’re not talking about romance. This match was even more important than that.
For George McClure, who works for the School of Medicine’s Office of Research, it was a chance at a healthier and longer life with a new kidney. And for Renee DiNuzzo, from the School of Medicine’s Medical and Health Sciences Foundation Division of Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement, it was an opportunity that she had been pursuing for years — to help someone else through organ donation.
A pretty amazing set of circumstances, which included delays and near misses, led the pair to each other, with help from McClure’s wife, Christine, who works in the Office of Research, and Gillian Scott, manager of the fitness center at the University Club.
But let’s start at the beginning.
About 10 or 12 years ago, Renee said she met two people — one who had donated a kidney and another who had received one — “and through talking to them, it seemed like something that was so life-changing for both of them and that it was something I really wanted to do.”
She’s always been an advocate for organ and blood donation but didn’t realize that kidneys could come from living donors. She soon found out that there were stringent criteria to be a living donor, including having a healthy weight.
“So, I lost 70 pounds and then kept it off for quite a long time,” Renee said.
About five years ago, she moved to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia, where she worked at the University of Pennsylvania. She then discovered that she had a thyroid condition that she had to deal with before becoming a donor. It took until March 2018 for her to be cleared to be a donor.
“That inspiration to donate has really (guided) how I’ve led my everyday life and informed a lot of my choices,” she said. “Now it will inform every choice I make for a long time.”
After being cleared to donate her kidney, Renee was ready, but she never got the call. She contacted her transplant coordinator and it ended up they had been trying to reach her, but a problem with her phone caused the call not to go through.
Finally, in November, she did one last series of tests because, she said, “They want to make sure you’re not going to have any problems 20 to 30 years down the line.”
Her kidney profile then was presented to a panel of doctors for approval, but the Thanksgiving holidays caused even more delays. Final approval came through in December and Renee was ready to donate her kidney to “whoever needed it the most.”
While Renee was making changes to meet donor criteria, George McClure was going through his own transformation, but not in a positive way.
Christine McClure said her husband, who she met when they were both working in the Graduate School of Public Health, was diagnosed at age 25 — nearly half his lifetime ago — with kidney disease. His first kidney transplant came from his sister. Christine said that one lasted 12 or 13 years before it started to fail.
In 2016, Christine was part of a chain donation that led to his second transplant. She donated her kidney to someone in California; someone there donated to a person in Massachusetts and George’s new kidney came from Massachusetts.
Shortly after, the McClures, who have both worked at Pitt since 2003, were told that the second kidney had presented some complications, and George was going to have to get a third transplant.
The problem was that finding a match was going to be even more complicated this time, because George was carrying three sets of antibodies — from his original kidney and the two transplants.
The perfect match
Enter the University Club fitness center and manager Gillian Scott.
Renee said that in March of this year Scott was telling her about George’s situation. George had been a patron at the fitness center before he became too ill to participate, and Christine was still coming regularly, although Renee only knew Christine in passing.
“Then I said to Renee, ‘Oh, if you're just going to donate your kidney to anybody, why don’t you donate to somebody you know.’ And so that's how they got hooked up,” Scott said.
The transplant coordinators were contacted, but Renee didn’t hold out much hope that they would match, particularly because George McClure is an African-American man and she is a Caucasian woman.
“It was so wild, because it was very, very, very unlikely, like one in a million, perfect match,” Renee said. All the delays in her getting approval to be a donor had led her to matching with George McClure.
The surgery, at UPMC Montefiore Hospital’s Starzl Transplant Institute, finally happened on Aug. 23. Renee’s surgery was four hours and George’s was seven, Christine said.
Christine said George was doing really well on Wednesday, when he was being released from the hospital. She said his creatinine levels are lower than they’ve been after either of the other two transplants. He expects to be home for two months.
Renee, who was home after two days in the hospital, expects to be out of work for three to four weeks. “I’m not going to run a race anytime soon, but I’m feeling pretty good,” she said. She hopes to get busy soon being an advocate for organ donation.
“The fact that she is giving up an organ and giving up some of her sick time — not many people would do that,” Christine McClure said.
Christine said Renee has become her “sister from another mister. Everybody says we have similar personalities because we won’t sit still, we’re always moving.” She hopes some of that energy rubs off on George.
Becoming a donor
For those thinking about becoming a living organ donor, Renee said, “It’s not a decision to take lightly. Because you are giving up a part of your body and it’s a big deal.
“Just getting the information is not a commitment,” she said. “Once they learn how the procedure works, and what it can really do for somebody, and if they decide to go through with it, it’s going to change so many people’s lives and it’s really going to impact their own.”
She said she feels like “I lucked out more than anybody in this gig,” because she was able to help somebody in this way.
“It’s a feeling you can’t even describe because you go into this expecting that you’re going to help somebody and that’s what you want to do. But that’s immeasurable,” Renee said.
You can find information about becoming a living kidney donor on the UPMC website.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.