Georgia mom, two sons all donate kidneys to strangers

It’s a grayish but lovely day north of Blue Ridge, in the quiet mountainside cabin where Amy Parker Zupancic has chosen to recuperate. The trees outside the big rear windows are about two weeks past their peak fall color — and the Dunwoody native is about three weeks post-op.

She’s enjoying her time away from the city. She’s feeling pretty good, too.

“I’m looking forward to the holidays, with all three of us together,” the 59-year-old says. “I think we’ll get a nice belly shot.”

Amy, you see, recently donated a kidney to a complete stranger. That four-inch scar running down her abdomen is new, a fresh reminder of a decision that will give another person 10, 15, 20 years of a fuller, healthier life.

Altruistic donation, they call it, and it’s certainly that. No intended recipient, no loved one in need, just a desire to help someone, anyone, that needs it.

The truly remarkable thing, though, is Amy was just the latest to join the club. Her sons have had their own scars for months now. They’d be the other two in the “belly shot.”

Dr. Christina Klein, medical director of the kidney transplant program at Atlanta’s Piedmont Transplant Institute, said she’s never seen anything like it.

“This is a really amazing family,” she said.

Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

Credit: SPECIAL PHOTO

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‘Compelled to do good’

Caleb McCracken, Amy’s now-29-year-old middle child, is a very analytical type of person. Deliberate, too. He reasons things out and then he acts.

So when, a couple years ago, he came across an online article titled “Why I gave my kidney to a stranger — and why you should consider doing it too,” he gave it some serious thought. The first-person piece by Vox’s Dylan Matthews basically boils down to this: at any given time, there are something like 100,000 people waiting for a kidney. If help doesn’t arrive for those folks within a few years, death likely will. In the meantime, life on dialysis is miserable. Maybe a quarter of people that need a kidney get one.

And, frankly, a healthy person giving up a kidney isn’t a huge deal. Some urine tests, a minimally invasive surgery and a couple weeks of discomfort.

Caleb read some more, looked for “counterfactuals.” He couldn’t find anything to scare him off.

“I’m very rarely totally convinced about one side [of an issue] or the other,” he said. “But I think I was struck by my inability to respond to the argument.”

He kept it in his pocket for a while, graduated Yale law school, started a job. When the time was right, he quietly applied to be a donor and started the testing process.

He didn’t tell anyone until March of last year, when he’d already been approved.

And as it turns out, Caleb’s older brother had considered making the same leap. All he needed was a nudge.

Daniel McCracken, now 31, had read the same article as his brother and it left a similar impression. He’d been an undergrad at the time and filed it away somewhere in his subconscious.

When Caleb revealed his owns plans, the urge suddenly came rushing back.

“In terms of who I felt I was as a person, there was a mismatch between that and what my behavior was,” Daniel said recently, on the phone from his home in Colorado.

“I felt like I was a really moral person, but I didn’t volunteer, I didn’t give money to charity, I don’t have kids. I’m just like a bachelor living for myself ... I felt compelled to do good.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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‘An actively positive difference’

Caleb had the surgery at Piedmont in June of 2021. He felt pretty crummy for about a week but was taking long walks around the neighborhood shortly after that, hitting the gym again in two months or so.

Daniel, meanwhile, had started the testing for his own donation. He came home to Georgia to celebrate Thanksgiving and went under the knife a few days later.

Then it was mom’s turn.

Amy, a former attorney and school librarian, had of course been reading up on the process. She, too, was sold. She’d already contacted Piedmont by the time Daniel had his surgery.

The boys weren’t exactly thrilled, concerned about her age and her arthritis (generally speaking, kidney donors have to trade painkillers like Advil and Aleve for Tylenol after surgery). But they’d lit the fire themselves — and her many visits to the hospital, seeing dialysis patients in the waiting room, made the choice obvious.

She had the surgery on Oct. 20. She’s doing great.

“The idea that you can change someone’s life for the better, just with a few weeks of discomfort?” she said during the recent visit at her north Georgia cabin. “To me that seemed like a very easy tradeoff.”