How one woman's selfless kidney donation made her a hero, 7 times over.

They took out Stacey Donovan’s kidney and put it into something that looked like a beer cooler.

An organ transplant cooler in Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

The container appeared better suited for a picnic than an operating room. But in a short time, that cooler — and Donovan’s kidney — would be flying over 1,500 miles to San Diego to meet its new owner.


Her donation would also set off an amazing chain reaction that would change not just one life, but seven.

It all started in 2013 in Prairie Village, Kansas, where Donovan lives with her husband and three rescue dogs.

While reading a science magazine, Donovan came across an article about the immense need for kidney donations. Estimates indicate that 600,000 Americans suffer from kidney failure, a serious and potentially fatal condition. Dialysis is the solution for many, but it can be exhausting. The typical procedure takes four hours at a time, has to be done three times a week, and can cause cramps, headaches, and vomiting.

A close-up of an artificial kidney machine. Image from iStock.

A kidney transplant is usually the only way for patients to be free from dialysis, but kidneys are in short supply. The waiting list is almost 100,000 people long, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Many people end up waiting for years.

“It just sounded like such a difficult, hard-to-keep-your-hope-up kind of existence,” said Donovan.

Donovan decided to do something most people have probably never considered. She was going to donate a kidney.

A live kidney donation surgery in Birmingham, England. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

“It wasn’t a difficult choice. I’ve taken more time deliberating whether to grow out my bangs,” she’d later write for XOJane.

But her family, especially her husband, wasn’t so keen on the idea. The surgery itself is pretty safe, but all surgeries come with risks. Plus it’d mean Donovan, with only one kidney, would be taking on a new pre-existing condition.

“The one thing that was reassuring for him, and kind of helped me win the debate, was the Affordable Care Act,” said Donovan. The law's pre-existing condition clause would protect her from rate hikes or denial if she ever needed to buy insurance again in the future.

Family convinced, Donovan contacted the National Kidney Registry, an organization that plays matchmaker for organ donors. For the next four or five months, Donovan went through a battery of checkups, stress tests, and urine analyses to make sure she was healthy enough to donate. She also had to send vials of blood for organ compatibility tests. She said that after enough vials, it became easy to imagine the National Kidney Registry as the front for some very sophisticated vampires.

Eventually they found a match — a man in San Diego.

Donovan had never met the man who would get her kidney. She didn’t even know his name.

Donovan and her husband drove to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for the surgery. After she woke up, a nurse told her, “Welp, nobody can ever say you never did anything nice for anyone.”

Donovan the day after the surgery. Photo from Stacey Donovan, used with permission.

But Donovan’s kidney was only the start of this story.

Because of Donovan, the San Diego man’s wife decided to pay the good deed forward and donated her own kidney to another unrelated recipient. And that in turn set off another donation. And another. And another. In total, Donovan’s initial donation ended up getting seven different people new kidneys.

It was a lifesaving effort carefully planned by the National Kidney Registry.

When a person needs a kidney, friends and family often try to donate but many find out they’re not compatible. In the past, this would be the end of the story, but starting in the late-1980s, doctors and hospitals realized they could simply swap who gets which kidney. Sometimes, these were simple exchanges, but sometimes a single altruistic donor can set off a chain reaction — a donor like Donovan.

Today, Donovan's back to her old life, though now she's worried others might not be able to follow in her footsteps.

Donovan says lately she’s been worried about what will happen if the Affordable Care Act's pre-existing condition clause is changed or repealed. The safety ensured by that law played a big part in convincing her family that she should donate.

“My main concern with that is what it'll do with the number of donors,” said Donovan.

What'll ultimately happen to the health care law is still unclear. The latest attempt to repeal and replace tries to keep the pre-existing condition clause, but introduces a loophole that’d allow insurers to charge more if a patient has gaps in their coverage record. And it's not clear if this bill will pass Congress.

Troy Zimmerman, vice president of the National Kidney Foundation, said he thinks the doubt around the Affordable Care Act could certainly affect the number of living donors.

Donovan still hasn’t met the man who got her kidney, but she has been able to get a glimpse of what it meant to him and his family.

About a week after the surgery, Donovan ended up getting a special package in the mail.

“I got all these handwritten letters from his family members,” said Donovan. It turned out the man wasn't just somebody's husband — he was a father and grandfather. In the letters, grandkids explained how the man could now go to the beach with them again. He could see them graduate.

The man's wife wrote as well. In her letter, she described life before the donation. It read, "...He's in the back room all the time in pain." But thanks to Donovan's generosity, she said, that pain could fade away.

And after his transplant, it did.

Images courtesy of Mark Storhaug & Kaiya Bates

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The experiences we have at school tend to stay with us throughout our lives. It's an impactful time where small acts of kindness, encouragement, and inspiration go a long way.

Schools, classrooms, and teachers that are welcoming and inclusive support students' development and help set them up for a positive and engaging path in life.

Here are three of our favorite everyday actions that are spreading kindness on campus in a big way:

Image courtesy of Mark Storhaug

1. Pickleball to Get Fifth Graders Moving

Mark Storhaug is a 5th grade teacher at Kingsley Elementary in Los Angeles, who wants to use pickleball to get his students "moving on the playground again after 15 months of being Zombies learning at home."

Pickleball is a paddle ball sport that mixes elements of badminton, table tennis, and tennis, where two or four players use solid paddles to hit a perforated plastic ball over a net. It's as simple as that.

Kingsley Elementary is in a low-income neighborhood where outdoor spaces where kids can move around are minimal. Mark's goal is to get two or three pickleball courts set up in the schoolyard and have kids join in on what's quickly becoming a national craze. Mark hopes that pickleball will promote movement and teamwork for all his students. He aims to take advantage of the 20-minute physical education time allotted each day to introduce the game to his students.

Help Mark get his students outside, exercising, learning to cooperate, and having fun by donating to his GoFundMe.

Image courtesy of Kaiya Bates

2. Staying C.A.L.M: Regulation Kits for Kids

According to the WHO around 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In the US, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 1 in 20 experience severe mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Kaiya Bates, who was recently crowned Miss Tri-Cities Outstanding Teen for 2022, is one of those people, and has endured severe anxiety, depression, and selective mutism for most of her life.

Through her GoFundMe, Kaiya aims to use her "knowledge to inspire and help others through their mental health journey and to spread positive and factual awareness."

She's put together regulation kits (that she's used herself) for teachers to use with students who are experiencing stress and anxiety. Each "CALM-ing" kit includes a two-minute timer, fidget toolboxes, storage crates, breathing spheres, art supplies and more.

Kaiya's GoFundMe goal is to send a kit to every teacher in every school in the Pasco School District in Washington where she lives.

To help Kaiya achieve her goal, visit Staying C.A.L.M: Regulation Kits for Kids.

Image courtesy of Julie Tarman

3. Library for a high school heritage Spanish class

Julie Tarman is a high school Spanish teacher in Sacramento, California, who hopes to raise enough money to create a Spanish language class library.

The school is in a low-income area, and although her students come from Spanish-speaking homes, they need help building their fluency, confidence, and vocabulary through reading Spanish language books that will actually interest them.

Julie believes that creating a library that affirms her students' cultural heritage will allow them to discover the joy of reading, learn new things about the world, and be supported in their academic futures.

To support Julie's GoFundMe, visit Library for a high school heritage Spanish class.

Do YOU have an idea for a fundraiser that could make a difference? Upworthy and GoFundMe are celebrating ideas that make the world a better, kinder place. Visit upworthy.com/kindness to join the largest collaboration for human kindness in history and start your own GoFundMe.

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Wil Wheaton speaking to an audience at 2019 Wondercon.

In an era of debates over cancel culture and increased accountability for people with horrendous views and behaviors, the question of art vs. artist is a tricky one. When you find out an actor whose work you enjoy is blatantly racist and anti-semitic in real life, does that realization ruin every movie they've been a part of? What about an author who has expressed harmful opinions about a marginalized group? What about a smart, witty comedian who turns out to be a serial sexual assaulter? Where do you draw the line between a creator and their creation?

As someone with his feet in both worlds, actor Wil Wheaton weighed in on that question and offered a refreshingly reasonable perspective.

A reader who goes by @avinlander asked Wheaton on Tumblr:

"Question: I have more of an opinion question for you. When fans of things hear about misconduct happening on sets/behind-the-scenes are they allowed to still enjoy the thing? Or should it be boycotted completely? Example: I've been a major fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer since I was a teenager and it was currently airing. I really nerded out on it and when I lost my Dad at age 16 'The Body' episode had me in such cathartic tears. Now we know about Joss Whedon. I haven't rewatched a single episode since his behavior came to light. As a fan, do I respectfully have to just box that away? Is it disrespectful of the actors that went through it to knowingly keep watching?"

And Wheaton offered this response, which he shared on Facebook:

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."