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Tulsan who donated his kidney to a stranger hopes to inspire more acts of giving

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With altruistic kidney donations representing only about 1% of transplants for people in need, Tulsan Mark Whitmire hopes others might follow his recent example and “act on that impulse.” He said his wife, Mona Whitmire, though nervous at first, has “been as much a part of this as I am.”

Not only was the card not signed, but it didn’t even address him by name.

But Mark Whitmire didn’t need any of that. It was clear it was meant for him.

“It was just a short thank you to say that she’s doing well,” he said. “It had a postscript at the end — ‘PS: I’m taking very good care of your kidney’ with a little smiley face.”

“It was very touching,” the Tulsa resident added. “It means a lot to me. That’s all I really need.”

A few months since donating one of his kidneys through Ascension St. John’s transplant program, Whitmire still has no idea who received it.

He and the recipient have not met and do not know each other’s names.

But Whitmire knew going in that’s how it worked with “altruistic” kidney donations, he said.

“It’s where people are just moved to do it without any connection to a recipient,” said Whitmire, who began making plans last year to become a donor.

Most donor kidneys come from either a deceased person or a living donor who has designated the recipient. Altruistic donations are rare, representing only about 1% of total donations.

But with his family’s backing, Whitmire was committed to the idea.

“I never doubted for a second that I was going to do this, once I decided,” he said. “It just seemed really obvious to me.”

A ‘moving’ story

Longtime Tulsa community advocates, Whitmire and his wife, Mona, already have a reputation for caring.

Most recently it included a statewide initiative to help Oklahomans burdened with medical debt.

In partnership with RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit, the Whitmires led an effort that raised funds to help more than 36,000 Oklahomans erase nearly $41 million in medical debt.

But donating a kidney is a whole different kind of caring, Whitmire acknowledged.

“From a philanthropic perspective, it is profoundly different,” he said. “But I’d also ask: Is relieving medical debt for a lot of people more or less profound than helping one person? I think both are equally important. They’re just important on different dimensions.”

Whitmire first took an interest in the idea of kidney donation in the 1990s after seeing an episode of “60 Minutes” on the topic, he said.

But it would be several years later, over a meal at a burger joint, before he would encounter an in-person example.

“It was at Ron’s (Hamburgers and Chili), and our waitress — it turned out that she had begun the process of donating a kidney. She was actually donating it to one of her customers. And it was just so moving to hear about.”

Last year, as Whitmire looked ahead to 2022 and new opportunities to make a difference, he thought about that waitress again. It inspired him to start researching the process of kidney donation, he said.

There was one obvious issue up front, he learned. The top age limit for donation was 65.

But if at 67 he was technically too old, Whitmire qualified in every other way, said Haley Lewis, Ascension St. John Transplant Service director.

“While we use the age limit of 65 as a general rule, we also look at the overall health of our donors,” she said.

Whitmire’s health history and the results of a thorough medical and psycho-social evaluation “showed us he was an excellent candidate for donation,” she said. “So Mark was an exception to that general rule.”

‘Pretty wonderful medicine’

Until he was certain he was going to be approved, Whitmire held off on informing his loved ones that he was planning to donate a kidney.

After some initial surprise and “varied” reactions, they gave him their blessing, he said.

“Mona was somewhat naturally nervous about it at first, but she was supportive, as she always is,” he said. “She’s been as much a part of this as I am.”

The process to match Whitmire with a recipient followed.

Earlier this year, that person was identified, and the transplant was carried out successfully.

Lewis said that out of more than 400 transplants in her nine years with the St. John program, she’s aware of just three altruistic donations.

“I’m always amazed at the amount of friends and family members who are willing to donate their kidneys to our patients. So when someone like Mark — who has nothing to gain and no emotional attachment to a recipient — can make the decision to donate an organ to a complete stranger, it just gives us all the more reason to believe in the goodness and selflessness that exists in the world.”

Lewis added, “After three years of a grueling pandemic and so much loss and sadness, that’s a pretty wonderful medicine for all of us.”

Whitmire hasn’t lost his passion for the initiatives for which he’s best known. Since retiring, he and his wife average one “big cause” a year, and that won’t change, he said.

But the opportunity to donate a kidney has been an experience like no other.

“One of the things that I want to be working on the next year is raising awareness about kidney donation,” Whitmire said.

“For Mona and I, the ultimate blessing is that we get to use our good health and our good fortune to help people in a variety of ways, on scale and also individually, as in this case. I’m blessed that I get to do both.”

As for his kidney recipient, Whitmire plans to hold on to that thank-you card.

It might be the only communication they ever have. And that’s OK with him.

To meet in person “is not an overwhelming need that I have,” Whitmire said, adding that just knowing someone out there has a new chance at life and health is more than enough.

“But if they had some need of any kind that meeting me would help, I would absolutely be willing.”

For now, Whitmire just hopes his example can inspire others to consider kidney donation.

For anyone who has thought about it, “I would just encourage them to know that it is doable, that it is not that hard. It’s not that intrusive,” he said.

“If they have any interest at all, I would just really encourage them to act on that impulse.”

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