Co-workers save husbands’ lives through kidney transplants

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta employees learn they matched the other’s husband, and each donated a kidney

Susan Ellis and Tia Wimbush work together in the IT department of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.In 2019, they learned they had something in common: Both their husbands needed a kidney transplant.Through chitchat at work, the women discovered they had the same blood type as the other's husband and decided to become donors.So Tia Wimbush, seen here with her husband, Rodney, donated a kidney to Lance Ellis.And Susan Ellis, seen here with her husband, Lance, donated a kidney to Rodney Wimbush

There is always that one co-worker you have a lot in common with. Susan Ellis and Tia Wimbush are like that. They both work in the IT department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. They each have two children. And they learned in the fall of 2019 that each had a husband in need of a kidney transplant.

Each also had something in common with the other’s husband — a blood type. And now they have the common experience of saving another person’s life through kidney donation.

Kidney failures

Ellis’ husband, Lance, had experienced health problems for years, even after receiving a kidney from his mother. In August 2019, however, his body was rejecting his mother’s gift and he was going into renal failure. This was just a few months after he asked Susan to marry him.

Susan Ellis was tested, but her blood type was not a match for soon-to-be husband. She went through the donor process anyway and became part of a chain donation, which creates recipient-donor pairings that could benefit many in need.

“Unfortunately, the chain fell through,” Susan Ellis said. “Though we were devastated, we would later find out that God had a better plan.”

That plan involved Wimbush and her husband, Rodney. Rodney Wimbush’s kidney story started with a jolt. Paramedics were called to Locust Grove High School, where he teaches geometry and coaches, because his blood pressure was too high. The paramedics rushed him to the emergency room, where the Wimbushes learned Rodney was in kidney failure.

Tia Wimbush was a match to donate a kidney to her husband, but meeting Ellis changed her plans.

Susan Worthy, manager of optimization and support IT at Children’s, knew of each woman’s plight and got their permission to share that information. She introduced the women, who quickly became confidantes.

“I found someone I can truly connect with,” Ellis said of Wimbush.

Susan and Lance Ellis, with Taylor, 13, and Molly, 7.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellis family

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellis family

Bathroom small talk

While in the work bathroom this past winter, the women engaged in small talk, as many people do. “We were washing our hands and catching up,” Tia Wimbush said. “I knew Susan was finishing up the donor process, so I asked how it was going.”

As they chatted, they learned the other’s blood type. Tia, it turned out, was a near perfect match for Lance, while Susan’s blood type was compatible with Rodney’s. The couples decided that evening to see if the unlikely could happen.

“People wait for years,” Susan Ellis said, “and I don’t mean two or three — I mean nine or 10 or 15 — for any type of organ donation.”

Four weeks later, the unlikely became reality. The women were confirmed to donate a kidney to the other’s husband.

“I was relieved and excited to learn that I was a viable kidney donor and that we all matched,” Tia Wimbush said. “This put us one step closer to my husband’s and Lance’s new lives.”

Getting Wimbush’s kidney meant “I can be with my family for more than a couple of years. I will be able to see our girls (Molly, 7, and Taylor, 13) grow up,” Lance Ellis said.

On March 19, a Wimbush kidney was transplanted into an Ellis, and an Ellis kidney was transplanted into a Wimbush.

“The organ donation process was simple, but thorough. The Piedmont team evaluated my overall medical health to make sure that I could live a full life with one kidney. Being a living donor has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” Tia Wimbush said. “The surgeons, doctors, nurses, coordinators and social workers at the Mason Transplant Clinic at Piedmont have provided exceptional care to me and to my husband throughout the donor and transplant process. Their compassion for patients is evident in the care they provide.”

Tia and Rodney Wimbush, with their sons, 13-year-old Randall and 18-year-old Rodney. Photo courtesy of Wimbush family

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wimbush family

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Wimbush family

New lives begin

Now the couples are recovering. Both women returned to work on May 17, cheered on by Children’s employees who lined the bridge to the hospital’s support center. At the end of the procession was a surprise guest — Rodney Wimbush.

The men are healing, just a bit more slowly.

“My recovery has been up and down, but mostly up,” Rodney Wimbush said. “All of my labs are trending in the right direction and starting to stabilize. My new kidney is doing great.”

Although Lance Ellis has had “some hiccups,” he said, “in the grand scheme of things its going pretty awesome!”

They both are looking to do the things they missed out on before the transplants. “I’d like to travel again without worrying about dialysis,” Wimbush said. “And now I can eat without restrictions again. I missed having Hershey’s chocolate bars (with almonds) and bananas.”

Ellis has one goal beyond getting healthy: “Have a honeymoon with my wife.”

Rodney and Tia Wimbush after transplant surgery. Photo courtesy of Wimbush family

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wimbush family

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Wimbush family

Lance and Susan Ellis after Lance's transplant surgery. Photo courtesy of Ellis family

Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellis family

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellis family

Others are waiting

As of February, there were more than 107,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, with another person added every nine minutes, according to More than 80% of those waiting need a kidney.

As the Wimbushes and Ellises show, shared ethnicity is not a requirement for organ transplant. “Still, a more diverse donor registry gives ethnic minorities on the transplant waiting list a better chance to find a good donor match,” the organ donor site states. “Because the immune system markers used to match organ donors and recipients are inherited, people with rare markers are more likely to match someone from a similar ethnic background.”

“It’s important to bring a showcase to organ donation, whether it be liver, heart, kidney, eye donation or bone marrow donation,” Susan Ellis said.

Tia Wimbush added: “Consider that you could be the answer to someone’s prayer; you could be the hope that someone is looking for simply by being willing to donate an organ — your kidney, liver, bone marrow. You could be someone’s hope.”

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