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SF police officer’s kidney donation leads to lifesaving chain of events

SF Gate logo SF Gate 11/19/2017 By Sophie Haigney

As a soldier in the U.S. Army, Anna Cuthbertson served in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. As a San Francisco police officer, she patrols the streets of the Richmond District, busting criminals and protecting citizens.

The average person might think that’s heroic enough. But in a selfless act initially meant to save one life, Cuthbertson, a mother of a 13-year-old girl, donated a kidney this week to a stranger, and in the process set off a chain reaction that made it possible for eight other people to receive lifesaving kidney transplants.

Kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson with her partner Josh McFall at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after her organ donation, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca. © Michael Macor, The Chronicle Kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson with her partner Josh McFall at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after her organ donation, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca. “I thought, the more the merrier. I was thrilled,” said the 35-year-old Cuthbertson, who was recovering at UCSF on Thursday after undergoing the surgery on Tuesday.

The operation was the culmination of a mission that started about a year ago after she listened to an episode of the podcast “Strangers” featuring a story about a transplant that mentioned the website www.matchingdonors.com. Intrigued, she clicked onto the site.

“It was really just my morbid curiosity at first,” she said.

The more research she did, the more she became persuaded to donate: the risks were lower and the procedure was less invasive than she’d expected.

While on the website one day, reading profiles of people across the country in need of organ transplants, she stumbled on the profile of a 64-year-old Joan Grealis, a mother two children from Walnut Creek.

“I lost my mother when I was 16, and Joan has kids who are my age,” Cuthbertson said. “I thought about how I would do anything to have my mom back, and to think there was a way that I could help these people who are my age keep their mother. I just thought, ‘God, why wouldn’t I?’”

Kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson with her partner Josh McFall at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after her organ donation, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca. © Michael Macor, The Chronicle Kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson with her partner Josh McFall at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after her organ donation, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca. Grealis got a call from Cuthbertson the day she posted the profile on the website. She had written about her close-knit family, especially her husband, a childhood sweetheart she met at the age of 12.

“He was devastated at the prospect of losing me,” Grealis said of her husband, Gary.

Grealis suffered from end-stage renal disease, a result of complications from intestinal surgery she had when she was in her 20s. Doctors determined that neither of her two children nor her husband was a match for donation.

Kidney recipient Joan Grealis, (left) visits with kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson, at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after their transplants, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca. © Michael Macor, The Chronicle Kidney recipient Joan Grealis, (left) visits with kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson, at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after their transplants, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca.

Before getting the call from Cuthbertson, Grealis had been on a waiting list for a donor for 3½ years.

Cuthbertson underwent eight months of intensive testing to see whether she could donate a kidney to Grealis. But eventually, doctors determined she and Grealis were not a match.

Kidney recipient Joan Grealis, visits with kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson, at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after their transplants, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca. © Michael Macor, The Chronicle Kidney recipient Joan Grealis, visits with kidney donor Anna Cuthbertson, at UCSF Medical Center's transplant unit of the hospital, two days after their transplants, as seen on Thursday Nov. 17, 2017, in San Francisco, Ca.

Both Cuthbertson and Grealis were put into a registry of pairs of people who want to donate and receive organs but aren’t matches for each other. Cuthbertson was eventually matched to a stranger, whose willing donor, in turn, paired up perfectly with someone else. Eventually the chain comprised 18 people, nine donors and nine recipients, including Grealis.

Grealis underwent a successful transplant at UCSF on the same day Cuthbertson’s kidney donation was completed.

Roughly 19,000 kidney transplants occurred in the United States in 2016, according to data from United Network for Organ Sharing.

Still, though the overall number of transplants has been steadily rising because of an increase in donors, waits remain long. The average wait time for a deceased donor donation in Northern California is seven to 10 years, said Chris Freise, surgical director of kidney transplantation at UCSF.

“Besides great outcomes for living donor transplants, one of the really big advantages is getting the transplant done a lot more quickly. Sometimes within a matter of months,” Freise said. According to the organ-sharing organziation, living donors accounted for about 30 percent of kidney transplants nationally in 2016.

Cuthbertson — who was born in the Sunset District of San Francisco and now lives in Pacifica — enlisted in the Army in 2001 and was deployed to Iraq in 2003. After she returned, she joined the San Francisco Police Department and gave birth to a daughter. She remained in the Army reserves, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, where she led a female engagement team that helped construct a local women’s center and advocate for women’s rights.

Cuthbertson said donating her kidney is one of the most exciting things she’s done.

“If I could highlight one thing about all of this, it’s that it’s so easy,” Cuthbertson said. “If people just did more research about it, they could really help save a life.”

Sophie Haigney is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sophie.haigney@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SophieHaigney

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