April 30 came and went for most people, but for Tony Bollin, it was another day of many disappointments in more than a year-long struggle to finally have a healthy kidney to replace his failing one.
It was on that day that Tony was to have his surgery, the second kidney transplant he has needed in the past 18 years. Over the last several months, a few possible matches — many of them his co-workers at Southern California Edison (SCE) — were identified, and recently, “Sally” had been selected as Tony’s kidney donor.
On April 7, donor and recipient met for the first time at the UCLA Medical Center for one last blood test before the scheduled surgery. But Tony’s wait for a new kidney had taken too long, and an increase in his antibodies meant Sally’s kidney would no longer work.
“I try not to get too emotionally attached. But when I met [Sally], I finally let my guard down,” said Tony. “And then pow. It wasn’t a light at the end of the tunnel; it was a train.”
Tony’s wife Rachel took the call from UCLA on April 16 with the news that Sally was no longer a match. The worst part was breaking the news to her husband.
“He just started crying,” said Rachel, who has only seen Tony cry a handful of times since they’ve been together. “He cried for three days.”
Amidst the family’s devastation, Rachel refused to give up. She was more determined than ever to ensure Tony’s story would not end in tragedy. She talked to the hospital every day and eventually she learned about paired exchange.
In a paired exchange, the person who needs a kidney transplant brings along someone who is willing to donate a healthy kidney on their behalf. In Tony’s case, Sally would need to donate her kidney to a stranger and in turn, Tony would receive a healthy kidney. The process sets off a chain reaction, resulting in dozens of people benefitting from a single donation.
“I had to tell Tony this sucks right now, but we have the ability to help more people,” said Rachel. “This could turn into something really cool.
“What keeps me going is that with paired exchange, there will be many more lives saved — that’s the only thing that keeps me going.”
When Sally first learned she was no longer a match for Tony, like the Bollins, she was devastated.
“I was devastated because you invest so much of yourself emotionally,” said Sally, who first learned of Tony’s plight in a story posted on the company’s online newsroom. “I had to take the rest of the day off since I couldn't pull it together.”
Sally is Type O positive, so her kidney is in high demand in the paired exchange’s national database, increasing Tony’s chance of finding a match from the various hospitals enrolled in the system. Sally first learned about paired exchange from Rachel and she was quick to get on board.
“It was only a difficult decision when I first found out,” said Sally. “It felt like I wasn't donating to Tony anymore. After a little time had passed, I realized I didn't know Tony when this started and I wouldn't know the person who would now get my kidney, so it hadn't really changed at all."
She added, “I try not to get excited, but I am a little anxious for it to all come together.”
With the Bollins pursuing the paired exchange route, the earliest they expect to find a match and schedule surgery is August. With Tony’s change in antibodies, the family also learned that a person with a Blood Type A2 is a better match for him now. There will also be a desensitization process that Tony will need to undergo just prior to receiving a new kidney.
But for now, the Bollins are keeping their emotions in check, knowing full well that even when August rolls around, things may change again.
“Things change all the time,” said Tony. “I’m just day by day. I can’t think that far ahead.”
Another challenge for the Bollins has been financial. With Tony on long-term disability, his co-workers generously donated vacation hours to help the family stay afloat. Recently, those hours were depleted so Tony’s co-workers in Transmission & Distribution have started a new effort asking for donated vacation hours for the Bollins.
For now, the Bollins are focusing on the positive, spending as much time as they can with their two-year-old twin girls, Nora and Brooke.
“Every day there is something we have to deal with. Everything seems to be a fight,” said Tony. “But we’ll get through it.”
“It is never-ending. There are days where I just want to drive far, far away. I want to escape,” said Rachel. “But I know it will work out in the end.”