This is a Valentine’s Day tale that involves a love connection of one kind and ends with a match of an entirely different sort.
Like most good love stories, it involves a man and a woman. But there is also a mom and her teenage daughter and that girl’s unique relationship with a man she had never met.
On Aug. 29, at the University of Washington, a 40-year-old man named Quinn Ottoway from Tacoma, Wash., donated his kidney, just because. “When I die,” says Ottoway, who is unemployed with a masters in sociology, “I want my life to have mattered.”
A few miles away at Seattle Children’s Hospital, 14-year-old Kendahl Buck received that kidney. Kendahl, from Anaconda, Mont., is obsessed with The Hunger Games. She plays basketball and volleyball, or she did until February of last year when nephronophthisis, a genetic disease that was destroying her kidneys, left her too weak.
In accordance with strict organ donation protocol, the process was anonymous. Ottoway had requested that his kidney go to a child but had no way of knowing if his wish would be fulfilled. Kendahl was told only that her kidney had come from a man.
The rules exist to protect both donor and recipient, so that neither person feels pressured to share an experience that they may prefer remain private. About a month after a transplant, families may begin the process of reaching out to one another. The donor may write a letter, which is funneled through the hospital that performed the surgery. The recipient is then asked whether she wants to be contacted; recipients can also initiate the process by writing letters of their own. Only if both parties agree that they want to be put in touch is communication allowed.
It’s unusual for donors and recipients to meet, but sometimes the strange coincidences of modern-day life intervene.
Ottoway, it turns out, isn’t just a man of enormous generosity. At the time, he was also a man in search of romance. He’d moved to the Seattle area a year before his transplant surgery. Still fairly new, he was trying to meet people and turned to online dating sites. He ended up on OkCupid, where Kathy Zahnow discovered his profile. Intrigued, she began reading, and did a double take after the second paragraph when she learned that Ottoway was recovering from surgery after donating a kidney. They swapped emails back and forth, with Ottoway telling Zahnow his operation had taken place Aug. 29. “I almost had a heart attack,” says Zahnow, 40, who replied, “Quinn, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think you are my niece’s kidney donor.”
Zahnow is Kendahl’s aunt, the sister of Kendahl’s father. She told Ottoway that her 14-year-old niece had received a new kidney the same day he gave his away. There are about 17,000 pediatric kidney transplants in the U.S. each year. What were the chances?
The next day, Ottoway showed up for a scheduled appointment with his surgeon. “What are the odds,” he asked, “of doing two kidney transplants at Children’s on the same day?”
Not likely, answered the doctor.
“What are the odds,” Ottoway asked, “that my kidney went to a 14-year-old from Montana?”
Sounds about right, answered the doctor.
“Your heart kind of stops a little,” says Ottoway. “All of a sudden, this abstract human being who got my kidney was starting to take shape.”
Meanwhile, Traci Gessele, Kendahl’s mom, was incredulous. Gessele and Kendahl had to remain in the Seattle area for several months after the transplant. At a family dinner, Zahnow showed Gessele the OKCupid email exchanges, but Gessele had her doubts. “The world is small,” she thought, “but it can’t be this small.”
Gessele shared her disbelief with Marrie Ketchum, Kendahl’s social worker at the hospital. Ketchum suggested they proceed with the standard procedure and write Kendahl’s donor an anonymous letter. Kendahl wrote: Thanks for your gift. I really want to meet you. Ketchum gave the thank you card to the donor advocate at the University of Washington, who shared it with the donor. The donor wrote back: I really want to meet you too.
At the end of October, a 40-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl and her mother met at Starbucks. They were expecting one another. “It was overwhelming,” says Kendahl.
Gessele recalls Ottoway saying, I don’t want to be called a hero.
It was hard for her to respect that request. In her eyes, he is that and more. She said, Thank you for saving my daughter’s life. She gave him an awkward hug.
Ottoway hugged her back, just as awkwardly. “I remember thinking, Don’t cry, because I didn’t want to break down in the first 90 seconds,” he says.
In the months since, their interactions have become less stilted. When Kendahl and her mom travel to Seattle for regular check-ups, they try to meet up with Ottoway. Ottoway’s mother made Kendall two afghans. A few weeks ago, Ottoway and Gessele became friends on Facebook. Once in a while, they text.
They’ve gone together to Seattle’s most charismatic landmark, Pike Place Market, looking for a symbolic piece of jewelry they could buy and wear as a memento. They’ve gone to the zoo. Zahnow came along on that outing too. In the end, sparks didn’t fly between her and Ottoway.
No matter. Love may come and go, but it turns out she and her family ended up finding a match that was equally, if not more, compelling.