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Spring 2009  |  Return to issue home

Giving the Gift of Freedom

By Beth Luce

Pop quiz: Do you remember the last present you gave to your brother-in-law?

Fiona Johnson
Fiona Johnson

UW Tacoma’s Fiona Johnson does, and it was a doozy: one of her kidneys. The gift helped Johnson’s brother-in-law find freedom from a life-threatening disease – and helped Johnson give back to the man she believes has been a blessing in her sister’s life.

“He’s an awesome dad and husband,” she said. “He went to dialysis at 4:30 in the morning three times a week so he could still work and provide for his family, and he just never complained.”

Matt Glenn, Johnson’s brother-in-law, suffers from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that causes the growth of cysts that ultimately lead to kidney failure. The disorder took his mother’s life in her early 50s, and has affected three of his seven siblings.

Three years ago, Glenn’s kidneys began to fail, and he was put on a waiting list for a new kidney. In the meantime, he began intensive dialysis treatments several times a week, a schedule that interfered with work and restricted family vacations to locations near a dialysis center. His wife Eileen, Johnson’s sister, considered donating a kidney – but with two children at home, ages 10 and 16, the thought of both parents going into surgery at the same time concerned them. That’s when Johnson, director of recruitment and a 1998 alumna of the Business Administration program, stepped forward.

“I had no children at home, good health benefits and medical leave, and I knew I would receive wonderful support from my supervisor, my staff and all of UW Tacoma,” she said. “I told her, ‘Let me do this.’"

After nearly a year of waiting and testing to ensure that she was a good match and physically fit for the operation, the surgery was performed successfully on July 31 at UCLA, near her sister’s home in Southern California. While Glenn required months of regular care after the operation and will be on medication for the rest of his life to help his body accept the new organ, Johnson recovered fairly quickly and was out of the hospital in just a few days.

“I felt very little pain afterward,” she said. “And I feel no different now than I did before the surgery.”

Since the operation, Johnson has been surprised to learn how many people live normally with only one kidney. She’s also been surprised at how many people, from family to strangers, were touched by her sacrifice.

“One nurse cried while she took my blood because she had lost someone to kidney failure,” she said. “And my niece and nephew were so grateful and supportive, which was impressive to see in kids.”

The thank-you with the most impact, though, came in a card from Glenn’s sister – who hadn’t previously been able to invite her brother’s family to her home in rural California because it was too far away from a dialysis center.

“They were able to visit her this winter,” Johnson said. “She said I had given him the gift of freedom.”

Photo by Jill Carnell Danseco

Spring 2009  |  Return to issue home