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Last week, three families forever connected by a paired exchange kidney transplant that took place in our hospitals all met for the first time in Minneapolis. From left: Erin Wevers, Fernando Cornejo, Teresa Campbell, Charlie Benda, Rachel Benda, Josh Benda and Jennifer Beauregard.

Our Patients, Breakthrough Innovation

Paired for life: Five Minnesota kidney donors and recipients meet in rare reunion

A 5-year-old’s need for a new kidney led to a paired exchange kidney transplant that united three families from across Minnesota
  • May 27, 2021
  • By Staff Writer

It would be hard for anyone to top the gift that 5-year-old Charlie Benda received just before his birthday this year. The gift – a new kidney – was given to Charlie by a young donor as part of a paired exchange kidney transplant that took place at our hospitals in March.

On May 19, Charlie and his parents finally got to meet their donor, 28-year-old Fernando Cornejo, at LifeSource in Minneapolis during a rare and emotional reunion between five separate organ donors and recipients who all made the transplant possible.

Paired exchange kidney transplants are complex arrangements that help people in need of a new kidney find matching donors more easily. A paired exchange allows a recipient with a willing but incompatible donor – like a spouse or sibling – to match up with another donor-recipient pair in the same situation. After two pairs are matched with each other, they “swap” kidneys, with each donor giving to the recipient in the other pair.

Paired exchange kidney transplants are relatively uncommon, but another factor made this case even more unusual: All the completed transplants were completed using a new technology called eplet matching. Eplet matching involves a complex molecular review that is more sophisticated than traditional methods. Doctors believe it will improve long-term outcomes and reduce the amount of anti-rejection medicine that transplant recipients need.

M Health Fairview leads the country in the number of paired exchange transplants completed using this new molecular-level matching technology, according to Transplant Surgeon Raja Kandaswamy, MD, MBA, surgical director of kidney transplantation and a faculty member at University of Minnesota Medical School.  

A donor for Charlie

When he was three years old, Charlie’s doctors discovered extra flaps in his urethra. His bladder hadn’t fully emptied since birth, causing his kidneys to work overtime. Although the flaps were removed, Charlie’s kidneys were damaged. The preschooler needed a transplant, or he would have to start dialysis.

Charlie’s great aunt Jennifer Beauregard was willing to donate, but her kidney wasn’t a perfect match for him. Instead, she donated to a stranger to give Charlie priority on the waiting list – setting off the paired exchange that would eventually connect three families from across Minnesota.

The first connection came in February, when Charlie was matched with Fernando from Minneapolis. Fernando had originally signed up to donate a kidney to his mother, Teresa Campbell, but tests revealed he wasn’t a match. Like Charlie’s great aunt, Fernando chose to donate his kidney to a stranger on her behalf. That stranger turned out to be Charlie.

After Charlie’s transplant, parents Josh and Rachel Benda got to shop for new clothes for their preschooler. Charlie was at the bottom of infant growth charts by his first birthday due to his damaged kidneys. Now, the family says he’s “eating like crazy.” 

“We had to buy some new pants for him the other day, he’s outgrown his clothes already,” said Rachel. “I thought it would be more gradual, but it was just a light switch. Something flipped, and he started eating more and growing. The energy he has now is awesome.” 

Eplet matching helps Teresa find a donor

Then it was Teresa’s turn.

Our M Health Fairview care team used eplet matching to search across the country for an ideal donor for Teresa, only to find the perfect match just miles away – Erin Wevers, a labor and delivery nurse in Lakeville.

"It was a wonderful match between Teresa and Erin – an almost perfect match,” said M Health Fairview Transplant Coordinator Margaret Voges, RN. “Eplet matching technology is what allowed us to discover that, and to find Teresa’s ideal donor in her own backyard.” 

Erin donated in advance on behalf of her brother-in-law, who is currently awaiting transplant in Colorado – meaning the chain of paired exchange will now continue further west. Although the family is originally from North Dakota, they’re looking forward to a reunion somewhere warm after he receives a new kidney and no longer needs to be on dialysis.

“I’m looking forward to more adventures and walks down by the river,” said Fernando, reflecting on the importance of the procedure for his mother Teresa. “Thanks to the transplant, I’m hoping someday she’ll get to meet her future grandchild.”  

A lifelong connection

At the reunion on Friday, Charlie ran through a garden along the Mississippi River blowing bubbles while all the other family members and transplant staff gathered to laugh and talk. Only a small percentage of donors and recipients ever meet, but these five living donors and recipients were eager to make that lifelong connection.  

During the meeting, Erin told Teresa that she had named her donated kidney “Leona,” so Fernando and Charlie quickly named Fernando’s donated kidney “Leo.”   

As the meeting ended, Fernando gave Charlie’s parents his email address with the promise that they’d send Charlie’s annual school photos in the years to come. Jennifer and her husband, Thomas, got ready to enjoy lunch with their healthy great nephew, and Teresa and Erin continued to laugh about “Leona the left kidney,” which will accompany Teresa on countless more walks down by the river with family.