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FARMINGTON — It could have looked like any small pre-holiday gathering, as a dozen or so people filed into a rented room at the Davis School District offices for a catered dinner.
But one of the greeters this night was a man whose life, and quality thereof, was changed by a kidney donation from a complete stranger.
In the fall of 2013, El Ray Schumann was diagnosed with kidney failure; doctors told him he needed a kidney transplant. Until he received one, the only option was life-saving dialysis.
"Once you've been on dialysis for even a day, your life completely changes," Schumann said.
None of those in Schumann's family who could donate was a match, greatly decreasing his chances for a timely donation. But the family learned if a non-matching person were willing to donate to someone else, Schumann would move up on the list.
At about the same time, Stefanie Mathewson saw a story on KSL TV about another kidney donation chain and was moved to action.
"I knew it was the right thing," Mathewson said.
In fact, she believes it was meant to happen when it did. "I could wait on 'what if' for years, and never, never donate," she said. "And I said, 'Well, what if somebody needs it now?'"
Mathewson contacted the Kidney and Liver Clinic at the University of Utah and found out that "somebody" was Schumann. Schumann's daughter, Stacey Gridley, in turn, offered her kidney to another recipient.
At first, Schumann didn't like that idea.
"I just said, 'Stacey, no. Two of us are not going to go through this'" Schumann said. "And she just said, 'Yeah, I'm going to do it. You can't change my mind.'"
I could wait on 'what if' for years, and never, never donate. And I said, 'Well, what if somebody needs it now?'
–Stefanie Mathewson, kidney donor
"I made the decision to do it," Gridley said, "and after I had made the decision I just felt at peace with it and I knew that it was the right thing to do."
That decision came much to the relief of Levenia Nicholas, who was also suffering from kidney failure. Gridley's kidney turned out to be a match for her.
Nicholas' family kept the chain going through, of all people, her ex-husband, Steve Graves.
"He wasn't a match [for me] either," Nicholas said. "But he said, 'Maybe if we could find somebody I could donate to,' he says, 'then maybe we could work it out that way.'"
So over a period of three days in December 2013, the chain was forged together: Mathewson's kidney to Schuman; Schuman's daughter's kidney to Nicholas; and Grave's kidney to another recipient.
Graves, however, did not end up donating his kidney. He said he was on the operating table when it was decided by doctors that his recipient couldn't go through the surgery. Still, other members of his "chain" said Graves played a key role in making the other transplants happen.
Dr. Jeffrey Campsen, surgical director of kidney and pancreas transplants at the University of Utah, said the formation and completion of donation chains is rewarding to watch.
"They didn't necessarily know each other before these transplants, and then they become friends — and then they talk to other about it," Campsen said. "And the bonds that these people grow; it gives you chills. It truly is amazing."
About half of University Hospital's kidney donations come from live donors, Campsen said. He's been involved in many "donation chain" transplants, the largest of which involved 22 recipients and 22 donors from around the country.
"Kidneys were flying everywhere," Campsen said.
As for life after the transplants, Nicholas said there's no comparison. "I am just so better, so much better than I was before," she said.
Gridley loved the difference it made in her father.
"It's amazing, it's amazing," she said. "Before, he had a hard time playing with his grandkids, and it's so neat to be able to see him back to his self.
"It was a total miracle how it all worked out," Schumann said.
Contributing: Sam Penrod