To radically transform someone else’s life at — in the grand scheme of things — a fairly minimal risk/consequence for me felt like a gift indeed.

Here in our Stories of Grateful Living, we honor the voices of our community as we invite people to share their personal experiences with gratefulness. Join us in appreciating the explorations, reflections, and insights of fellow community members as we collectively learn what it means to live gratefully.

Jan Passion shares his story below.

For many years I was intrigued by the idea of donating one of my kidneys.

Most of us have heard that it is possible to live a full and healthy life with just one kidney. And many of us are aware that the wait time of those desperately in need of a kidney can be many years long… All too often, the list is too darn long. People die while waiting…

So why not me?
Why not now?

The author with the transplant surgeon.

Indeed – why not! I was in my early 50s, and I was fairly healthy — physically, emotionally, spiritually… To radically transform someone else’s life at — in the grand scheme of things — a fairly minimal risk/consequence for me felt like a gift indeed. And so I opened myself to the call of giving — and receiving — this gift.

Other than two months of post-op recovery, the long-term impact of kidney donation is quite minimal. Reassuringly, if an altruistic kidney donor should ever need a kidney, we get to cut to the front of the line. Donors do need to be mindful of NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen) and avoid intense contact sports, as we don’t want to overly challenge our remaining kidney. But I rarely take NSAIDS anyway, and I wasn’t into rugby, wrestling, or hockey — so not a big deal for me.

A side benefit for those considering sharing an organ is that potential donors get a tremendous medical workup (paid for by the recipient’s insurance) to ensure we are solid candidates. It was gratifying to reaffirm my healthy physiological and psychological foundation.

My Inspiration

My friend Michelle in Vermont has a childhood friend, Barbara, in New York who, after a lifetime of managing her kidney disease due to a birth defect, urgently needed a kidney. Barbara and I were not a blood match, so I could not donate to Barbara directly. I had been “waiting” for something to nudge me in the direction of making a decision to donate – and Michelle’s longing to help her friend and her “ask” of me was just the catalyst I needed.

A Paired Exchange

Now the very cool thing that we humans have finally sorted out is how to organize a paired exchange. What this means is that I could go to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and donate my kidney to a man named Dennis from Sacramento; Dennis’ daughter wanted to donate to him but her kidney was too small, so her kidney went to Minneapolis to another pair that wasn’t quite a match, and so on… and eventually, six months after my kidney went to Dennis, Barbara, in New York, got her very much needed new kidney! How cool is that!

No more expensive and tedious and time-consuming dialysis for Dennis or for Barbara (and others also in the paired exchange chain)! What a thrill to be able to start a domino effect that impacted the lives of so many!

There is a joy in impacting so meaningfully (especially at such a “life-and-death” level) the lives of many others.

It is said that we are at our happiest when our lives have meaning… when we can have a positive impact. For me, touching the lives of Dennis and Barbara was a deeply gratifying and wonderful experience. My sense of awe, connection, generosity, and gratefulness deepened in this process. What a gift! There is a joy in impacting so meaningfully (especially at such a “life-and-death” level) the lives of many others.

While my intuition said “yes” all along (before, during, and after) this process — it did take a while for my intellect to get fully behind the idea. I had a couple of people in my life who had trepidations, and I needed to navigate their feelings, concerns, and reservations — though overall I was very supported by my family and friends in this decision. I also needed to make space in my life for a two-month operation and recovery. Fortunately, I had some months to prepare for this disruption, and January/February are pretty slow for me, so everything came together serendipitously.

The Surprise

When I went to UCSF in January 2019 for the transplant procedure, I had no idea who I was donating my kidney to. I only knew that I was starting a paired exchange chain that would eventually lead to Barbara. The organ transplant ward at UCSF is pretty big. They do this kind of thing all the time, so I felt like I was in good hands. My operation went well. Pretty much right after the procedure, the medical staff ask patients to do laps around the ward. As I was walking around, passing by other patients, I was curious – “Are YOU the human who now happens to have my old kidney?”

The author and Dennis, recipient of Jan’s kidney.

For patient privacy, staff are careful not to reveal the identity of recipients and donors, unless both sides of the paired exchange are very clear that they are happy to be known. I wrote a letter to my recipient, introducing myself and inviting us to connect if the recipient was open to that. During morning medical rounds, I gave a copy of my letter to one of the interns and asked if he would share it with my recipient to see if he or she wanted to meet. The next day I got to meet Dennis and his family – and a very heart-warming connection was made.

Dennis has since come sailing with me, and I have visited him at his home outside of Sacramento. Both Dennis and Barbara are doing well with their new kidneys. But even if their body had rejected their new kidney — as sometimes happens — it still would have been worth it. It is the unknown risks and uncertainty that accompany these deep acts of generosity that make them more meaningful and transformative.

My life is now fuller and deeper for having connected with Barbara and Dennis. Even though I only have one kidney, I feel as though I have lost nothing and gained so much. Perhaps my kidney was always somehow destined for Dennis and for 54 years I was simply caretaking his kidney!

He earned his Masters at the School for International Training in 2000 in International/Intercultural management, writing his thesis on Building Nonviolent Intercultural Peace Teams. He earned his bachelor’s degree at UMass/Amherst with a self-designed program on gender and power.

Jan worked and lived in Sri Lanka serving as the Deputy Director for Nonviolent Peaceforce – an organization helping civilians to protect other civilians in areas of conflict. He has been a bus driver, EMT, sailor, peace activist, charter captain, juggler and dancer, paraglider and life adventurer.

We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”


Stories of Grateful Living
Jan Passion

Jan Passion

About the author

Jan Passion is a Spiritual Pragmatic Radical Idealist Nurturing Transformation.