NORFOLK, Va. — We've all felt something of the stress, isolation, and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was an especially difficult time for people dealing with unrelated illnesses. For those waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, COVID meant fewer hospital beds and fewer donors.
"It complicated things enormously," said Dr. Harlan Rust, a nephrologist with Sentara Healthcare.
Rust said hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients were no place for transplant patients who had suppressed immune systems. Living donors stayed in their bubbles. As a result, kidney transplants at the Sentara Transplant Center dropped by a third during the pandemic, mirroring a national trend.
"There was no hospital bed to put a transplant patient in, even if we had an organ. Many patients were scared to come to the hospital, and some people on the waiting list got COVID," Rust added.
Despite the real risks of COVID-19, Steven Morrison, an Old Dominion University professor, needed a new kidney, and soon.
"It was always in the cards, but we were hoping... you don't know how quickly the disease is going to progress," he said.
Morrison was hit in the back during a soccer game, revealing he had polycystic kidney disease. Doctors told him he would need a transplant.
"I was like a car. I couldn't get out of third gear," Morrison said.
Morrison's sister, Lesley Jenkins, was a match and agreed to be a donor, running her decision by her doctor, her family, and grandchildren.
"It had to be done, and it's a life-long experience I will cherish that I was able to do it for him," Lesley said.
There was just one problem: while Jenkins was willing, she was 9,000 miles away in New Zealand, a country with a completely different health care system.
While COVID-19 presented challenges for organ transplants, the pandemic also created new platforms for people to get medical help. When the virus hit, Sentara was building a sophisticated Telehealth network.
"We were set up already for Telehealth and ready to do that, and the staff quickly adapted to that and patients adapted," Rust said. "We tried not to bring people into the building constantly."
Telehealth allowed Lesley's doctors in New Zealand to coordinate with Sentara, limiting her exposure risk to COVID.
"I had a major Zoom call when I had like seven medical professionals talking to me... you know, the surgeon, there was a psychologist, the social worker," Jenkins explained.
After traveling by planes, trains, and automobiles, and taking a host of COVID-19 tests, Lesley headed to Norfolk for the surgery, jokingly remembering a curious security guard in San Francisco.
"I'm bringing my kidney for my brother. He just suddenly looked up and said, 'What?'" she said.
After a few delays, the brother and sister donned surgical caps and gowns. The surgery: a success.
"Having that time with Steve, when we were recuperating, was just a really great connection again, back to the things we do as a family," Jenkins said.
"Someone told me I was going to feel better afterward, but I don't think they tell you how well you will feel," Morrison said. "It's quite remarkable, the miracle of surgery. I'm pretty blessed."
Steven Morrison is a pandemic transplant success story, but doctors at Sentara Healthcare said the mortality rate of kidney transplant patients with COVID-19 was much higher than ordinary people.
As for whether COVID-19 can be transmitted through a transplanted organ, Rust said the risk appears to be low.
"It doesn’t seem like the virus is at high levels in the blood, and it doesn’t get transmitted to the kidney," Rust said. "We still are being cautious and saying it still could be possible, but it seems to be, so far, low risk, and so that allows people to get a life-saving kidney despite a COVID diagnosis of the donor."