UPMC Life Changers are employees who go above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of patients and staff, friends and family, and the community. Follow their stories in this monthly series to see how UPMC employees are changing lives in more ways than one.
Physical therapist Ryan King got into the health care field to help others. But in 2015, he found himself called to help someone on a deeper, more personal level: He donated a kidney to his neighbor, Joe Chiprean.
“We knew Joe was having kidney issues, but we didn’t know the extent of it until February 2015, when his wife Sarah posted on social media that Joe was starting dialysis and was going to be placed on the transplant list,” says Ryan, 42, who works as clinical director of Ortho/Neuro Services at UPMC Hamot in Erie.
“Our oldest son is in the same grade as their youngest son, so we knew the Chipreans from school and living near each other,” he says. “But we weren’t close friends; we were more like neighborhood acquaintances.”
Nevertheless, Ryan and Katie felt strongly that they had to do something. Devout Christians, the couple prayed about how to proceed.
“We couldn’t turn a blind eye to them,” says Ryan. “We put it in God’s hands. If every door opened along the way, we felt it was meant to be.”
Taking That Next Step
The couple went through the preliminary evaluation, which ruled Katie out as the donor. Ryan, however, appeared to be a possible match. Months of further outpatient testing, including multiple blood tests and CAT scans, determined that Ryan and Joe’s blood type and protein antigens matched.
As a potential donor, Ryan says he never felt pressured.
“During the entire process, there’s an advocate for the donor and an advocate for the recipient,” says Ryan. “At every point along the way, you can change your mind if you decide against it for any reason.” The two men also talked openly about the procedure.
“A week before the surgery, Joe said to me, ‘We will forgive you if you need to move on and not do this.’ But we felt energized and covered in prayer through our friends, family, and our church family. We felt very much at peace with it,” adds Ryan.
The surgery in September 2015 was successful for both men. “After six weeks of recovery, I was back to work,” says Ryan. “And Joe now lives a normal life. He’s a real estate agent, father, husband, son. He has to take antirejection medicine but doesn’t need dialysis.”
Being a Match, Becoming a Friend
There’s another bonus to the experience: A wonderful friendship has blossomed between the two families. As they recovered, Joe and Ryan went out to lunch weekly. And on the anniversary of the transplant surgery, the couples celebrate with a fancy dinner at a restaurant.
“We look at each other more as brothers now,” says Ryan.
Ryan shares his story often, speaking about the importance of living donor organ transplantation whenever he can. After the Chiprean family honored Ryan with a UPMC Hamot Guardian Angel award in 2016, the Hamot Health Foundation established the Ryan’s Choice Fund, which supports transplant patients and creates awareness about living donation.
Ryan says he is humbled and blessed to have been a part of Joe’s journey. “The whole experience has changed my outlook about the challenges people face,” he says. “It’s so easy to live in your bubble when things are going well for you — but so rewarding to help someone in need.”
To learn more about living organ donation, please contact UPMC Transplant Services.