A month ago, Dan Coyne knew just two things about a cheerful cashier who worked at Jewel-Osco in Evanston: her first name and her need for a new kidney.
On Friday, however, their lives became inextricably linked after Coyne donated one of his healthy kidneys to Myra de la Vega, of Evanston, a Filipino immigrant and single mother of two teenagers. The daylong organ transplantation took place at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Kovlar Organ Transplantation Center, which performs about 170 living-donor transplants a year and is one of the busiest programs in the country.
After the Tribune first reported in February about Coyne's promise, several customers told de la Vega that her story had inspired them to pursue becoming living donors. Coyne, a Chicago Public Schools social worker, was honored with a schoolwide assembly at Pershing East Magnet School, where he and de la Vega talked about community service and urged the children to imagine giving back "in unbelievable ways," said Coyne.
And Coyne and de la Vega say that once they recover, they want to help find living donors for some of the 84,000 people in the U.S. suffering from kidney failure.
"I want to give people hope," said de la Vega, 49, who has been spending $40,000 a month on dialysis since August of 2008 and once believed her death was imminent. "I think depression goes with this disease, and when it attacks, it really breaks you. When you're a dialysis patient, you have to have something to hold on to. Maybe people will see that if a stranger like Dan comes to me, it can become real for them, too."
Coyne was expected to be discharged from the hospital Saturday. Because de la Vega will need to be monitored after taking anti-rejection medicine, she will stay in the hospital until Monday.
The kidney is the organ most commonly involved in living-donor transplants because bodies can function normally with only one of the fist-sized organs. Some living donors are related by blood; others donate to a general pool. Some, such as Coyne, simply feel an emotional connection with the recipient.
In Illinois, more than 3,800 people are waiting for kidney transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing registry. The average wait time for a kidney from a deceased donor in the Chicago region is about five years, said Dr. John Friedewald, a transplant nephrologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
But living donors can make an immediate impact. Half of living-donor kidneys transplanted now will still function in 15 years, whereas half of kidneys from deceased donors last about 10 years, Friedewald said.
At Jewel-Osco, Coyne often chose de la Vega's checkout line because she was so friendly. But when she started to look sick, he asked what was wrong. After learning de la Vega had started dialysis for kidney failure, he consulted with his wife of 26 years, Emily Coyne, who gave her blessing once she researched the safety of the donation procedure.
Initially, de la Vega said no; she was hoping her sister from the Philippines would be a match. When that didn't work, Coyne repeated his offer.
"I was shocked, but at the same time I was honored and privileged," said de la Vega, who came to the U.S. in 1996 and has worked the late shift at the grocery for 12 years. After work, she undergoes eight hours of dialysis while sitting up. "He's an angel who lives on Earth."
Over the last month, the two families have grown closer. Coyne's two children, Isaac, 14, and Julia, 11, went through de la Vega's checkout line one evening last month and handed her a card conveying the news that their father was a match. De la Vega's family, which includes her two children, Mydel Santos, 18, Kim Santos, 14, and her 79-year-old mother, Leticia de la Vega, had the Coynes over for dinner and sent flowers with a note that read, in part, "Thanks for giving our mom a second chance."
Dan Coyne said his gift has no strings attached.
"If we can be friends and our families support each other, fine," he said, "but I want her to know she is in no way obligated to continue a relationship with me after she gets the kidney. It's a gift."
At 6 a.m. Friday, as they drove to Northwestern Memorial Hospital together, Coyne and de la Vega seemed like old friends. Though she was anxious and feeling exhausted, she joked about the surgery.
"My boss said that maybe when I have one of Dan's kidneys, I'll be quieter," de la Vega said. "He says I talk too much, but I say, ‘That's how I got my kidney! Why would I change now?'"
At Northwestern, as Coyne and de la Vega prepared to head to their respective surgical floors, they stood looking at each other for a moment. Then they hugged goodbye, both fighting tears.