Keith Hardy had already made up his mind to become a living kidney donor when he just happened to catch a news segment that reinforced his decision.
It was about an O’Fallon, Missouri, elementary school teacher who was retiring after 25 years because her kidneys were failing and she was on the waiting list for a crucial organ transplant.
The May 20, 2020, Fox 2 television report described how grateful students, family and friends organized a drive-by parade of 108 cars to honor Jenni Huddleston and let her know the impact she had on their lives. They also were desperately looking for a donor to save the life of this inspirational teacher and mother of three adopted children.
It was a touching report that would stick in anyone’s mind. Although Keith was certainly moved, he had no idea at the time that he would become the answer to their prayers.
“I was in the process of getting in shape to give my kidney when I saw her on television,” he says. “I had no idea I’d be the one.”
Jenni’s journey with kidney disease started in 1994 when she was 22 years old. She was diagnosed with meningitis and ended up on dialysis for a year. Her illness was caused by common variable immunodeficiency (CVID), an immune system disorder that causes low levels of the proteins that help fight infections. Jenni eventually recovered and seemed to be fine for quite a while. But then a few years ago, her kidney problems resurfaced. She went back on dialysis and it soon became clear a transplant was necessary.
Her friends and family launched a campaign to find a donor by creating a variety of car decals that said: “I Need a Kidney,” “My Mom Needs a Kidney,” or “Jenni Needs a Kidney.” Each of the 40 to 50 decals distributed also had Jenni’s father’s phone number.
“The whole process rekindled my hope in mankind,” Jenni says. “Some people would call and say, ‘I can’t donate, but I’ll pray for you,’ or ‘Tell me more.’”
A Life-changing Match
It took until the next year to find a donor who matched and her surgery finally took place on Feb. 25, 2021.
She remembers waiting in a big room with other donors and recipients and thinking that her match was probably one of them.
“It’s really nerve-racking,” she says. “You try to eavesdrop and listen. You think, ‘Is my donor here?’ Then patient by patient, they took each of them out and I was the only one left.”
Unless the living donor and recipient are acquainted, there is a six-month waiting period before they can learn each other’s identity. Keith reached out to Jenni the day after he received her contact information from his transplant coordinator.
“I was anxious,” Keith says. “We texted for about a week, but just to hear her voice, that’s what really hit home.”
The momentous event happened on Aug. 28, 2021, when Jenni and Keith and their families met for lunch at an Italian restaurant.
“Being able to meet him is a whole other bonus,” Jenni says. “He was so funny. At the end of the lunch, he said he had just one question. I was like, ‘Oh no, he wants it back.’ But it was about Thanksgiving and he wanted to get together. That was powerful.”
“I don’t think anybody can understand. You did more for me than I did for you,” Keith says to Jenni. “It’s hard to explain to people how it changes your life. I wish I could explain it because more people would at least try. What I got out of this, I just can’t describe.”
Keith was so grateful for the experience that he and his wife, Teri, made a gift to the Organ Transplant Innovation Fund at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The fund provides support for pilot projects that fuel future clinical and scientific advancements, allowing physicians to make breakthroughs, engage in translational research and bring discoveries into the practice of medicine. This seed funding helps to finance trials that are crucial to the ability of transplant teams to improve the care of patients and their outcomes.
“We’ve got more than we need,” Keith says about their philanthropic contribution. “I’m not a millionaire but it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
“There are not many people like you, that’s for sure,” Jenni says. “Receiving your kidney was life-changing. I know a lot of people say it and it sounds like a cliche. But it was life-changing. It was my second chance.”