For Christmas a couple of years ago, Lewis Merrill got a surprise gift from someone he’d never met. Although it was unexpected, he had wished for it and hoped for it for three years. That’s how long he’d been on dialysis. Merrill’s Christmas present was a new kidney.

What the 35-year-old stay-at-home dad really got was the chance to once again be the kind of family man he wanted to be: Mowing the lawn. Taking the kids to the zoo. Planning a vacation with his wife and five children. Merrill’s was one of the 70 transplants that Saint Luke’s Kidney Transplant Department successfully performed that year. In most transplant cases the donors are not living. When they are, as Lewis’s was, there’s usually some kind of connection between donor and recipient— a family member, for instance, or an old college roommate.

But Merrill’s donor was a stranger. And yet they had a connection: Just as he’d been hoping for a kidney for three years, his 55-year-old donor had been hoping to give one for about that long.

Waiting and weighing the risk

Debra Callaway was Merrill’s Christmas angel. A longtime schoolteacher, she had been on the Bone Marrow Registry for two decades but had never been a match.

“I’d read an article about being a kidney donor and got so excited,” she said. “I thought, ‘I could do that for someone. It would be a great gift to give.’”

Provided she could wait a couple years.

While in Guatemala in 2003, Callaway had contracted malaria, which she successfully recovered from. To be ultra cautious, though, Saint Luke’s doctors advised her to wait three years before becoming a donor.

Sharon McCarthy, a registered nurse and the Certified Clinical Transplant Coordinator, worked with Callaway throughout the process.

“The day Debra met the three-year mark, she called me and said, ‘OK, what do I need to do next?’” recalled McCarthy laughing.

Neither Callaway nor Merrill knew each other’s name. The Midwest Transplant Network, which is the organ procurement organization for the Kansas City area, is careful to maintain anonymity on both sides. The organization allows a monitored exchange of letters only after the surgery.

“Psychologically, the biggest issue for both donor and recipient is, ‘What if this doesn’t work?’” McCarthy said. Callaway’s husband had similar misgivings.

“My husband had a hard time at first when I told him what I wanted to do,” Callaway said. “He was concerned about me taking this risk. I told him I wasn’t going to do it unless he was OK with it. He didn’t have to like it, just be OK with it.

“In time, he became more than OK, said Callaway. “He became wonderfully supportive,” she said. “And now that he’s met Lewis and his family, he’s really glad I did this.”

Two wishes come true

When Callaway was taken into surgery, she still didn’t know her recipient’s name, but she did know he was a married man with young children. “She told me, ‘I’m sending a balloon to my recipient,’” McCarthy said. “She was so uplifting.”

Doctors at Saint Luke’s performed laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgery on both Callaway and Merrill.

“The night after my surgery, I woke up and thought, ‘Wow. He’s got my left kidney now. Imagine all the things he’ll be able to do,’” Callaway said.

She quickly resumed her active life, going back to running in about a month and competing in the Little Rock marathon 10 weeks later. Merrill started doing all the family things he’d wanted to do.

“When I was on dialysis, we couldn’t take a vacation,” he said. “Last Father’s Day, we all went to Las Vegas and did a lot of eating!” But why would Callaway give up her kidney? That’s what Merrill wanted to know.

“I’d heard of people getting transplants from someone who was deceased,” he said. “This was so different. I wanted to meet her and thank her.”

From changing a life to saving one

Finally they did meet, nearly a year later, as the transplant network requires a waiting time. Callaway invited Merrill and his family to dinner in her Shawnee, Kan., home.

“I was nervous,” Merrill confessed, “but so happy to meet her.” And for Callaway? “It was wonderful,” she said.

Last Christmas they met again, on the anniversary of their surgeries, and toasted each other. Since then they’ve also spoken at Saint Luke’s to families of donors and recipients.

“Being a teacher, I don’t get a chance to save lives—maybe to change them, but not save them,” Callaway said. “This was my chance.”

There’s now another reason why Callaway is so happy about her decision. In the spring of 2008, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s made me glad I donated when I did,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling, giving this wonderful gift to someone.”