Families Pay Forward the Gift of Life in Emory’s Paired Exchange Program

Paired Exchange Tiffany Prevo Mark VillantiAs a personal trainer and general manager of Workout Anytime in Decatur, GA, Mark Villanti believes being healthy and living life to the fullest is a top priority. Fitness is Mark’s passion and he especially enjoys running ultra-marathons and helping his clients get into shape. One day, a client of Mark’s mentioned that her husband was in need of a kidney transplant and that neither she nor any other loved one was a match. Mark got to thinking, ‘what if I became a donor?’ Coincidentally, back in college as a Sports Science major, Mark conducted research on renal failure and gained a keen understanding of what physical limitations a person on dialysis experiences – being tied to a dialysis machines for hours at a time, multiple times during the week. When his client mentioned her husband’s need for a kidney, in some way Mark felt it was a spiritual message.

“I have always loved to help and protect people; my wife would say that I am a very giving person. Being a combat veteran of the US Marine Corp and the US Army, serving in the Iraq war, and losing both parents in the past 5 years made me realize how important life and living is.”’

Knowing what a dialysis patient is up against on a daily basis and thinking about his client’s husband’s need, Mark began the matching process and was approved to be a donor. But while in the process, Mark’s client’s husband received a kidney from another donor. Instead of returning back to his daily life and forgetting the notion of donating, Mark decided to continue the process to become an altruistic donor.

When he was contacted by Emory informing him they found a matching patient candidate, Mark learned only that she was a woman in her 30s needing a kidney and that she was a part of the Paired Exchange Program through the Emory Transplant Center. This program was established to help pay forward the gift of donating life, meaning that when Mark donated his kidney to the recipient, the recipient’s loved one would then donate their kidney to another person in need since there was not a compatible blood match. In a paired exchanged donation, a donor and recipient are matched with another incompatible donor and recipient pair, and the kidneys are exchanged.

Mark’s recipient Tiffany Prevo, wife and mother of three daughters (a 9 yr old and 5 yr old twins), was diagnosed with Lupus in 2008, which led to her end stage renal failure. Tiffany’s doctor told her that she would either need dialysis treatment for the remainder of her life, or that a kidney transplant was an option. Tiffany decided to be placed on the transplant waiting list. While waiting, Tiffany underwent peritoneal dialysis which tied her to a machine for eight hours every day.

“The dialysis treatments made me very emotional. I was up and down and just borderline depressed. I wanted a transplant right away – I couldn’t work and worse of all, I couldn’t do things with my daughters.”

Jemel, Tiffany’s husband, and other members of her family went through the matching process but were not eligible. Jemel immediately offered to be a part of the paired exchange program to accelerate Tiffany’s chance of receiving a kidney. Tiffany waited 18 months before she received the call from Emory stating they found Mark, her donor match.

On the day of transplant, Tiffany felt calm, asking herself, “Is this really happening?”. As Mark went in to have his kidney removed, he was not afraid at all. As a matter of fact, he felt excitement and was “ready to get this done to help this woman.” And finally there was Jemel, who also had surgery on that same day to donate to a child that he has never met.

All surgeries were successful. As Mark was recovering from his surgery at Emory University Hospital, he was up walking the halls as requested by his doctor, Dr. Nicole Turgeon. “As I walked past a room in the hall, I looked in and saw a woman. She looked back at me and we both thought, could this be the person?” As a matter of fact, Jemel and Mark were recovering in patient rooms right next to one another, and by chance a meeting of the three occurred. There were many smiles, hugs and tears of joy. Mark knew he had given the gift of live.
With words of wisdom to others who may be considering becoming a living donor, Mark says, “With anything else you have to look at the pros and the cons; in my case there were no cons. I knew I could live with just one kidney so I went for it. Life is a gift God has given us.”

Tiffany is very thankful to Mark stating, “I’ve never met such an amazing kind hearted man in person. You see it on TV or hear about it on the news but I never thought it would happen to me – I’m really grateful to Mark”. As for her husband, “Well he’s my hero. Without him all this wouldn’t have been possible – he’s amazing too.”
Two weeks post surgery, Mark was already back to one of his favorite pastime’s, running on the trails. Fast forward two months later to today, and Mark is training for another ultra marathon in September, where he will run 35 miles. He is back to his normal day to day activity and feeling great.

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