The Insider’s Guide to Healthy Hawaii: Life After a Trans-Pacific Organ Donation

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Many of us may have a driver’s license marked “donor,” but few of us choose to donate an organ while we’re alive. Nurse Elizabeth Lehman is one of those few. 

When Lehman saw Cherish Matautia, mother of two, enduring countless rounds of dialysis and doctor appointments while waiting for a kidney donation, she felt compelled to help. “I often thought about what it would be like to walk in her shoes, to take on her responsibilities,” Lehman says. “I realized that there are few people who could carry her illness and its burdens with such grace.”

Matautia was going to dialysis for four-hour sessions three times a week, all while working full time and raising her two toddlers. “It was difficult, exhausting and draining,” Matautia says. “But I had to keep going—I had to stay strong for my kids.”

Everything changed when Lehman told Matautia that she wanted to be her kidney donator. “I was in disbelief,” Matautia says. “What kind of person, who has no relation to you, texts you out of nowhere saying they’ll give their kidney to you?”

Doctors at the Queen’s Medical Center found that Lehman wasn’t an exact match for Matautia, but that didn’t stop this determined duo. They joined the National Kidney Registry exchange program, where pairs of donors and recipients can swap kidneys with another matching pair.

Then, on November 15, 2016, as Matautia received a kidney from the Mainland, Lehman sent hers to a patient in Colorado, marking the first kidney transplant from live donors across the Pacific.

Today, both women have recovered well. Lehman has eased back into hiking, swimming and exercise classes. “At times I need to remind myself that I’m missing an organ,” she says. To anyone considering donating a kidney she says, “Do it! The process was full of ups and downs, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit painful. But the triumph was worth the trials.”

Matautia finally has the time and energy to spend with her kids. “My children were and still are my motivation to keep going in this life,” she says. “I feel more freedom and I’m definitely taking advantage of it.”

If you’re waiting on an organ donation, Matautia offers some words of encouragement: “Don’t lose hope,” she says. “It may feel like you’ve been waiting forever, but your time will come. Talk about your feelings to your family; don’t hold it in for fear of burdening them. If you have a donor who isn’t a match, consider the exchange program. You and your donor could be involved in a chain of transplants, like Beth and me.”

People across the nation need donors for kidneys, eye tissue, bone marrow and more. Get more information on organ donation at organdonor.gov. And if you’re considering becoming a live donor like Lehman, ask yourself these important questions to help you decide whether it’s right for you.

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