by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Sunitha Gokavi, Keith Shattuck
Keith Shattuck is thankful he has a loving wife, good friends, and a teaching job that he loves at Casey Elementary School in Rialto. But he wouldn’t be around to appreciate these blessings if a colleague hadn’t rescued him from “the brink of death” by donating a kidney. For that generous gift, Shattuck will be forever grateful to Sunitha Gokavi.
“What can I say?” he asks, wiping a tear and looking at Gokavi, a kindergarten teacher at Casey and fellow Rialto Education Association member. “There are no words. She saved my life.”
Shattuck, 44, was first diagnosed with kidney problems at age 23. He was on dialysis for years before receiving his first kidney transplant in 1999 at Loma Linda University Medical Center (LLUMC) from a deceased donor. That kidney lasted 11 years, the typical lifespan of a transplanted kidney.
The fourth-grade teacher began feeling sick again in 2011 and knew immediately he was experiencing renal failure. He felt lethargic and had little appetite. Soon he was back on peritoneal dialysis, which manages kidney failure until a kidney transplant is possible.
“I felt terrible,” recalls Shattuck. “I tried to keep working, but I kept getting sick and didn’t have the energy I needed for the job. The first time it happened, I was more accepting. I was sadder the second time around.”
Shattuck went on medical leave and waited for a kidney. His wife offered to be a donor, but was ineligible due to kidney stones. He missed nearly two years of work.
He may have been absent, but his co-workers didn’t forget about him. Amazingly, six teachers — both current and former employees of Casey Elementary — plus two spouses of teachers visited LLUMC to be screened as possible donors. None passed the screening due to health issues, until Gokavi stepped up to the plate and passed with flying colors.
They weren’t close friends; she didn’t know him well. But she wanted to help if she could, because Casey Elementary School is the kind of place where teachers do such things.
“If you worked at Casey, you wouldn’t think it’s so amazing,” says Delicia Shattuck, Keith’s wife, a former Casey teacher now at another Rialto school. “We are family, not by blood but by choice. At Casey Elementary we celebrate together, we mourn together, and we lift each other up. It’s an amazing school. There’s no other place like it.”
It didn’t matter that Gokavi wasn’t a “match” for Shattuck, because the hospital, like many others throughout the U.S., had a “paired exchange” donor program. Under this kind of “pay it forward” plan, a donor who is incompatible with a designated recipient agrees to donate their kidney to a stranger, in exchange for the designated recipient receiving a kidney from another stranger. Keith’s kidney came from an altruistic college student in St. Louis, who started the chain. Gokavi doesn’t know who received her kidney — but she knows that it saved that person’s life, as well as Shattuck’s life.
Donating a kidney was not a difficult decision, says Gokavi, 50, who is “happily” single.
“I prayed about it. I’m a Christian and believe in helping people. I enjoy good health. I felt like God directed me to do this, and I felt at peace with my decision.”
Her brother traveled from India to be by her side during the Jan. 8 procedure. She underwent laparoscopic surgery so doctors could remove her kidney through a small incision. The procedure is minimally invasive and allows for a quicker recovery period (about six weeks) for living donors. Shattuck’s insurance company paid for the kidney removal operation as well as the transplant surgery that took place on the same day.
Shattuck was thrilled to be able to return to school this fall and says he feels “fantastic.” He has gotten to know Gokavi, and says she is now like a sister to him. Students sometimes ask about the transplant. They are told that yes, indeed, Ms. Gokavi gave Mr. Shattuck a kidney so he could return to school and not die.
“People pass away every day while they are on dialysis,” says Shattuck. “It’s hard to think about now. I didn’t have much of a life. I felt like I just existed. I feel so in debt to Sunitha.”
So does his wife, Delicia.
“She affected his life, but she has also affected my life by giving me my husband back. In addition to helping me, she helped my parents, who were helping me take care of him. She helped students, because now they are lucky to have a great teacher come back. It just goes on and on, who she’s helped.”
The Shattuck family is hoping that sharing this story will create awareness of paired exchange kidney donations with living donors, which can save lives worldwide.
“My husband was on a transplant list for a deceased donor, but they had told us that it would be a nine to 10 year wait,” says Delicia. “The average person on dialysis only makes it five years. Time was running out for us. So I want people to know that you don’t have to be a perfect match to donate a kidney. Sunitha wasn’t a perfect match, but it still worked perfectly.”
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