As a high school English teacher and father of two, Kyle Sterup spends much of his professional and personal time encouraging young people to do the right thing. The 39-year-old Kirksville resident does more than just talk a good game.
In 2016, Sterup began thinking about becoming an altruistic kidney donor — someone who gives up a kidney to a stranger. He remembers hearing a radio program that discussed the long wait list for kidney transplant recipients. The idea surprised his wife at first.
“But we share the same ideals and values, so I think she really understood what I was talking about and the idea of helping other people who have had a hardship,” Sterup said.
With support from his wife, Sterup contacted MU Health Care’s kidney transplant office. He underwent an assessment to determine his fitness to donate, and after he was approved in January 2017, he immediately began further evaluations and tissue matching to find a recipient.
“A potential donor goes through a multitude of lab work, scans and evaluations,” said MU Health Care urologist Stephen Weinstein, MD. “Each person is assessed by an internist to make sure he or she is healthy enough to withstand surgery and maintain kidney function with only one organ. Psychological testing is also done to make sure the donation is being done for appropriate reasons.”
Sterup was cleared for a surgery in summer 2017 so he had time to recover before school started. What he didn’t know was who would be helped by his donation.
“I really did want my kidney to go to whomever had the greatest need,” Sterup said. “Secretly, in the back of mind, I did kind of hope it would go to someone in Kirksville just because I do feel a connection to this community.”
While Sterup was considering organ donation, fellow Kirksville resident Paul Munoz’s health deteriorated.
“My feet were swollen, I was getting sick all of the time and my joints were hurting,” said Munoz, who was 47 at the time. “Finally, my brother-in-law said he was taking me to the hospital.”
Unbeknownst to Munoz, he had been suffering from chronic kidney disease. He was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure, which means about 90 percent of kidney function has been lost. Once a patient reaches end-stage kidney failure, the only two treatment options are dialysis — a recurring procedure in which a machine removes waste from blood — or transplant.
Munoz immediately began dialysis in Kirksville and was referred to MU Health Care to begin the transplant process.
“He, like all recipients, went through extensive medical evaluation to make sure it’s safe and would be effective and that the risk of surgery and consequences of the medications are acceptable,” said Mark Wakefield, MD, chief of MU Health Care’s Division of Urology.
In mid-Missouri, the average wait for a deceased donor kidney transplant – roughly 80 percent of transplants performed at MU Health Care — is about three years. Munoz had to hope for a faster match. After only six months, he received good news.
“I got a call on a Thursday that a kidney had been matched to me, and by Monday morning I was in Columbia waiting for surgery,” Munoz said. “I was excited and scared at the same time.”
On July 25, 2017, Weinstein removed one of Sterup’s kidneys. The doctor stayed in constant communication with Wakefield, who would be implanting the kidney in Munoz. That ensured a quick transition, one of the advantages of a living donor transplant.
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, living-donor kidney transplants have lower one- and five-year rejection rates than deceased-donor transplants.
MU Health Care, an academic health system and the only hospital in mid-Missouri with a transplant team, has performed more than 1,000 kidney transplants over the past four decades. The average acute rejection rate is less than 10 percent, which is well below the national average of approximately 15 percent.
When the body has one kidney, that kidney grows in strength and does the work of two.
“Receiving a kidney is a new lease on life, and it’s an amazing adventure to watch them grow into that,” Wakefield said. “Every donor has in their soul, in their heart, the desire to do something good, but usually it’s to someone they know or know of. In Kyle’s circumstance, he was willing to give it to the next in line to receive a kidney.”
Sterup is the second altruistic kidney donor in the past five years at MU Health Care.
As they recovered in the hospital, Sterup and Munoz looked forward to meeting. Typically, donors know the recipient, but Munoz had yet to meet the person who provided him a life-changing gift. Sterup’s wife, Erika, pushed him in a wheelchair to Munoz’s hospital room days after their surgery.
“It was awesome,” Munoz remembered. “We got to know each other. I talked to his wife. We had fun.”
The meeting was just as rewarding for Sterup.
“Getting to meet him, shake his hand and just hear him tell us about when he received the call they had a kidney for him, it reconfirmed in my mind that, yes, this was the right thing to do,” he said.
After they each spent a few days at MU Health Care’s University Hospital, Sterup and Munoz returned to Kirksville and are back to their daily routines. They share a special bond that will always tie them together.
“I realize kidney donation is pretty rare, and I think people make a big deal out of it, but honestly I see it as something that a lot of people could do,” Sterup said. “I want my kids to see that’s just what you do. If you can help somebody, you should.”