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Two complete strangers are now great friends — because of a kidney and enormous human kindness.
In the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, two dads have developed an irreplaceable bond after one donated a kidney to the other. Steve Sanders, 46, is a single father of two children. Sanders has been living with a very rare genetic condition called uromodulin kidney disease (UKD); his kidneys were slowly failing over time, eventually resulting in his need for dialysis for life — or a kidney transplant.
Sanders decided to search for a kidney donor through a website he created. He shared the info on social media.
And that’s when Chris Perez, 40, a complete stranger, answered the call and ended up being a perfect match.
Despite his condition, Sanders is an otherwise healthy and “extremely active” father of two. He goes to the gym regularly and loves riding his mountain bike, he told Fox News Digital.
However, doctors continued to keep an eye on his kidney function, which was slowly declining over time.
“I did not want to go on dialysis … If you go on dialysis, it’s really taxing on your body.”
“We were beginning to have conversations a few years ago about, well, ‘You may need to think about a transplant if these numbers continue to go down — or dialysis,’” Sanders said, recounting one of his doctor’s comments.
“I did not want to go on dialysis … as an active father of two young kids,” Sanders continued.
“If you go on dialysis, it’s really taxing on your body.”
Sanders said he spoke to people who have been through dialysis; they said they were “wiped out” every time they went for dialysis.
“To hear how it has impacted their quality of life, that was frightening for me,” Sanders said.
That’s why, about a year and a half ago, he decided to focus on finding a kidney donor.
Sanders said he created a website and started posting his story on social media in the hope that someone would get tested and be a match for him.
He said his posts began getting attention. At least 26 people started submitting paperwork to become donors; but nothing was coming through. Either people weren’t matches — or they stopped the process early.
“I don’t fault them for that,” Sanders said. “I completely understand.”
Still, Sanders became disheartened and frustrated that nothing seemed to be working out.
“I was just thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to have to do and am I going to have to start coming to terms with the potential for dialysis at some point?’” Sanders told Fox News Digital.
It never got to that point, though. In late 2021, Sanders got the news that he had an approved donor.
‘Somebody willing to give me a chance’
“It was a total relief,” Sanders said when he heard the news. “I was happy that somebody was willing to give me a chance.”
Chris Perez heard about Steve Sanders through his wife in July 2021. One of her co-workers had shared Sanders’ story on social media; she passed it along to Perez.
Just by chance, Perez was working as director of volunteer services at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center. It’s precisely where his and Sanders’ surgeries would take place.
“Here’s this serious health issue that you can’t control and is no fault of your own, yet could severely impact your quality of life and your ability to see your kids grow up.”
Perez told Fox News Digital that his wife asked him if he would consider donating a kidney. He thought, “Sure, why not?”
A week later, she followed up with him about filling out his paperwork, so Perez started to look more deeply into the process, including the potential health and safety risks and what his quality of life would be after donating a kidney.
“I started really doing my homework,” Perez said.
“Once I felt satisfied with what I found, I downloaded the paperwork and I sent it in,” Perez said. “And then a couple of weeks later, they contacted me to start the process.”
Chris Perez said he wanted to be an example to his kids of the kindness and empathy he teaches them to have.
Even though Sanders was a stranger, Perez said he wanted to help him out as a fellow dad.
“I couldn’t help but really think deeply about if it was me in that situation,” Perez said. “I’d really want someone to do it for me.”
“And what must that like?” he continued. “What must that experience be like?”
Perez added, “It’s really scary to think about. Here’s this serious health issue that you can’t control and is no fault of your own, yet could severely impact your quality of life and your ability to kind of see your kids grow up and spend time with them and things like that.”
Perez said he also wanted to be an example to his kids of the kindness and empathy that he teaches them to have.
“I always tell my kids that we need to work really hard to be kind for others and kind toward others,” Perez said. “I really believe that at the end of the day, our kindness and the way we are compassionate toward others — that’s the legacy we leave behind after we’re long gone.”
Perez added, “I would love for [my kids] to grow up one day and be like, ‘Hey, you know what? My dad was a good example of being kind of others.’ That’s really what I hope for.”
Perez decided not to reach out to Sanders until he was officially approved as a donor, so he wouldn’t get hopes up if something didn’t turn out.
Once Perez passed all the tests, the hospital asked him if he wanted to share his phone number with Sanders — and Perez gave the permission.
Sanders texted Perez the next morning and asked to talk to him on the phone.
Both Sanders and Perez told Fox News Digital that they expected to chat for about 15 minutes — instead they spoke for over two hours.
“It was an immediate connection,” Sanders said. “It was like I knew this guy my whole life without ever meeting him. We clicked right away.”
Perez added, “Our sons have the same name, we have a similar background, we studied the same thing in college, we just really hit it off. [He] was like an old friend.”
Sanders said the relief he experienced when he found out he had a kidney donor was amplified when he got along so well with Perez.
“It was a total relief. I was happy that somebody was willing to give me a chance.”
“The relief that the relationship that he and I have formed, right from the start, has been just really fantastic,” Sanders said.
“Chris has made me feel very comfortable about not owing him anything,” Sanders added. “This is a guy who did this out of love and kindness and a very genuine place. And that felt really good … and really harbored a place for us to become great friends.”
Outcomes of live kidney donor transplants
Dr. Kent Kercher, M.D., a surgeon at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center, performed the surgery on Chris Perez and removed his left kidney using a laparoscopic device.
Kercher told Fox News Digital that during his 22 years of doing living kidney transplants at the Carolinas Medical Center, only about 10% are from anonymous or “non-directed” donors — i.e., strangers.
Kercher said there’s also a gap between the number of living kidney donors and the number of deceased kidney donors.
In 2021, there were 19,186 kidney donations in the U.S., according to the Organ Procurement & Transplant Network.
Of those, 13,214 were from deceased donors and only 5,972 were from living donors — making Perez’s decision to donate a kidney to Sanders even rarer.
Dr. Kercher said that live kidney donor transplants have several benefits for the recipient, including shortening wait times — there can be wait times of up to three years for deceased donor kidneys, he said. Another benefit is that doctors have time to schedule and prepare patients for surgery, rather than giving them a last-minute notice when a kidney becomes available.
“The outcomes are dramatically better for the patient that receives a live donor kidney transplant.”
Live kidney donor transplants also mean that the kidney is only out of the body for 10 to 15 minutes, unlike in cases of deceased kidney donor transplants, Kercher said. In the long run, recipients who get kidneys from living donors have a better long-term survival rate — both for themselves and for their kidneys, he said.
“The outcomes are dramatically better for the patient who receives a live donor kidney transplant than the one who receives a deceased donor kidney transplant,” Kercher said.
In Sanders’ case, Perez’s kidney started to work almost as soon as it was transplanted in Sanders. It continues to function well.
“I woke up and I felt really great,” Sanders said about his post-surgery experience. “I felt like the fog was lifted. I didn’t feel fatigued and it just got better and better over the coming weeks.”
“My labs looked really, really great right away and they’ve been holding steady, so I’m feeling good about that,” he added. “And now that my incision is healed, I’m looking forward to getting back out and having an active lifestyle.”
‘Got a kidney, but also a really great friend’
The two dads’ surgeries took place in January 2022 at Atrium Health. Perez said they visited each other while still in the hospital.
Even after the transplant, Sanders and Perez have continued their friendship.
Later, when the two men were both stuck at home recovering, they “helped each other get through those initial post-surgery boredom days,” Perez said of the experience.
“My life has been enhanced by knowing him, because he’s just a really great guy and he’s a good friend,” Perez said of Sanders.
Even now, the two text “almost daily,” Perez said.
“We really are really good friends,” he continued. “It’s been incredible how well we get along.”
Sanders added, “I got a kidney, but I also got a really great friend out of this.”
“For him to give a piece of himself to extend my life and my quality of life so I can be a good dad is the greatest gift I could ever have and could ever get,” Sanders continued. “And it just shows … what a great person he is.”
“If time were reversed and they gave me another chance, I would absolutely do it again for Steve, or for anybody else.”
Both Sanders and Perez said they hope their story encourages other people to consider organ donation.
“Maybe not a living donor, because it’s not for everyone, but when your time on this planet is over, you could help so many people by being a registered donor,” Perez said.
Sanders added that there are other ways to help, too, including by blood donation and bone marrow donation.
“There are all kinds of things you can do to help somebody else out, somebody who’s maybe lost hope or thinks it’s not going to happen for them,” Sanders said.
For Perez, donating his kidney to Sanders is something he said he would do again, if he could.
“If time were reversed and they gave me another chance, I would absolutely do it again for Steve, or for anybody else,” Perez said.
Perez said he didn’t have any doubts donating his kidney to a complete stranger — something that people often ask him about.
“I would tell them, ‘If you needed it and I was a match, I’d have done it for you,’” Perez said. “Because my belief is that if it was me, I’d need someone, anybody, to do it for me, too. And I’m just really lucky to be that guy.”
Perez added that he hopes that “Steve can have a really, really healthy future, and me too.”