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'A chance at life': Kidney donor and recipient tell the story of what brought them together

In early September, the 1 millionth organ transplant was performed in the U.S. The journey is more than a number for those who’ve receive the life-saving gift.

OREGON, USA — The United States surpassed one million organ transplants on Sept. 9, 2022, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. And for the people who have given or received an organ, it's an important milestone to celebrate.

“One million is such a large number, but we need to think more deeply about it because that’s one million lives that have been transformed and saved and enhanced by this incredible gift,” said Jackie Wirz, executive director of Donate Life Northwest.

Brandy Carrico is one of those million people whose life has been forever changed because of organ donation. She and her donor, her second cousin, shared their story with KGW.

“We knew we were related, but we were mostly friends on Facebook,” Nicole Nowlin said.

Nowlin and Carrico are second cousins living in Oregon, although they spent most of their lives even further apart

“We’re kind of distant relatives, recently connected. I grew up in Alaska, she grew up in California,” Carrico said.

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Years later, a life-changing gift connected them forever.

“I know my cousin better now,” Nowlin said. “She’s got a permanent part of me. So, she’ll never get rid of me.”

Carrico has polycystic kidney disease; a hereditary disorder where cysts develop in the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time.

“It’s kind of something I’m born with and you have a 50/50 chance of passing it on,” Carrico said. ”So, my daughter has it. My son does not.”

In November 2020 she entered end-stage renal disease, and by January 2021 she found out that she needed a transplant — and needed it soon.

A conversation on Facebook sparked a solution; Nowlin wanted to donate Carrico her kidney.

“She messaged me saying she’d be interested, and to be honest that’s a really weird concept to me — I don’t even really like borrowing sugar,” Carrico said.

She accepted Nowlin’s offer and that started the long process of testing to see if they were a match.

“I don't think I’ve ever had that many vials of blood taken in my life,” Nowlin said.

After rounds and rounds of blood work and testing, Nowlin got the call she had hoped for.

“'Hey, you’re a match. You’ve been approved. Do you want to proceed?’ I said, 'Yes, I want to proceed, but you’re not allowed to tell Brandy. I want to call,'” Nowlin recalled.

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Nowlin surprised Carrico with the news over video chat, beginning by playing coy and asking her what her plans were for March.

“She’s like, ‘How about surgery?’” Carrico said.

A wave of joy, relief, and gratitude came over Carrico Then, on March 1, 2022, Carrico received her second cousin’s kidney.

“You learn that you’re capable of this amazing life-giving gift,” Nowlin said. “You are accepting a risk. There’s always a risk.”

“I can’t believe the difference her kidney makes. Yeah, it’s really cool,” Carrico said.

More than 100,000 people are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants here in the U.S., according to Donate Life Northwest.

Every nine minutes another person is added to the national transplant waiting list and, unfortunately, 17 people die each day waiting for their transplant.

There is hope, however. This year the U.S. reached a historic milestone of one million organ transplants.

“The idea of a million lives, a million families, one million communities that have been enhanced by transplantation — that’s breathtaking,” Wirz said.

Not only that, but in Oregon there are now three million people on the Oregon donor registry.

“Reaching this three-million milestone just speaks to how much Oregonians are invested, not only into the health of themselves, but their community,” Wirz said.  

While signing up to be an organ donor after your death is important, living donation is growing.

Of the one million donations in the U.S. so far, 15% are from living donors.

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“This is the opportunity to give a kidney, a portion of your liver, or a portion of your intestines while you’re still alive,” Wirz said.

That is the life-saving path Nowlin and Carrico took together and it’s one that has connected them forever.

“I feel super close. I feel like I’ve gained family,” Carrico said.

“Knowing that she is back 100% with her kids and husband and back to a normal life and learning to ride a motorcycle; living her life again when she was tied to dialysis three days a week and unable to do the things that she wanted to do is incredibly rewarding on its own,” Nowlin said.  

“It gives somebody a chance at life,” Carrico said. “It’s the most generous thing that anyone can do.”  

Learn more about organ donation and sign up to be a donor at www.donatelifenw.org You can also learn more about Nowlin and Carrico’s story here.

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