If a small, thoughtful gesture like a smile can transform your day, imagine what a major act of kindness could do for the decades ahead. Nearly 6,000 people nationwide became living organ donors last year—each of them enduring an unnecessary surgery to give a friend, family member or complete stranger the opportunity to live a longer life.
Nine years ago Marlee Phomsopha drove herself to a local urgent care clinic with aches and chills, expecting to walk out with a prescription for antibiotics. Instead, the pediatric dental assistant was shocked to discover days later that she was in kidney failure. A biopsy determined that Marlee was suffering from Berger’s disease (also known as IgA nephropathy), an autoimmune kidney illness. Within a few months, she was put on dialysis.
"We didn’t need to ask anyone else to get tested. I knew it had to be me.”—Marlay
Receiving a donor kidney was her best option. However, there are nearly 97,000 patients in need of a kidney transplant, and the average wait is three to five years. Luckily, and without hesitation, Marlee’s twin sister, Marlay Manopaseuth, stepped in. “Once the specialist referred us to the transplant center, we didn’t need to ask anyone else to get tested. I knew it had to be me,” says Marlay. “I work as a nurse and even I didn’t know that much about organ transplants. So along with our parents, we learned as a family.”
After a thorough medical evaluation and a series of blood, genetic and psychological tests, Marlay was deemed a perfect match. The doctors also determined Berger’s disease was unlikely to replicate in her. “They said it could have been something Marlee was exposed to in the environment,” explains Marlay. “But there has never been a real answer as to why she got this and I didn’t.”
Two days before their 26th birthday, Marlay’s kidney was transplanted. (The laparoscopic procedure involves small incisions made in the abdomen so that a tiny camera can guide the removal.) After three days, Marlay was released from the hospital.
It’s been nine years since Marlay donated to her twin, and she hasn’t had any medical problems. Still, the experience changed her. For the past three years Marlay, 35, has worked as the renal transplant coordinator at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, advising patients suffering from kidney disease who are about to begin the transplant process. “I came back to work after surgery with a new purpose,” says the mother of two. “It’s really important for people who need a kidney to share their stories so that others can help. My sister and I are thankful for what we have now more than ever.”