War veteran SFPD officer saves woman's life, donates kidney

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Every day in the United States 20 people die waiting for an organ transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

This week a San Francisco police officer and Afghan war veteran is saving the life of a complete stranger by donating her own kidney.

The donor recipient, a Walnut Creek woman with kidney disease, was told she only had years to live. But that all changed Tuesday when the pair underwent a successful kidney transplant at USCF.

10 months ago, Officer Anna Cuthbertson and Joan Grealis were total strangers.
Grealis, a mother of two, found out five years ago that she has been suffering from a deadly kidney disease.

Doctors told her she needed a transplant, but no one in her family was able to donate. For years she waited for a deceased donor, but with no luck.

"I found out about this website, Matching Donors and went on," said Grealis.

At the same exact time, SFPD Officer Cuthbertson was on the non-profit website, too. It's a database where patients are introduced to people willing to donate.

"It's like Craiglist for body parts so who wouldn't want to check that out?" said Cuthbertson sheepishly. (Donors are actually not paid any money for their organs, which is illegal in the U.S.)

Out of thousands of profiles, Cuthbertson zeroed in on Grealis.

"I saw Joan's profile and something about it spoke to me," said Cuthbertson.
"I was jumping up! I couldn't believe that an hour after I posted- that someone answered me!" yelled Grealis.

After months of intensive testing, Grealis was wheeled into transplant surgery at UCSF Medical Center Parnassus Campus Tuesday evening.

"You're a rock star, mom!" said her son Aslan as she waved goodbye from the gurney. 
Cuthbertson had her kidney removed earlier in the day.

"There are about 100 thousand people waiting for kidneys in this country and by far and away the best option is to have a living donor," said Dr. Deborah Adey, UCSF's Medical Director for Kidney Transplant Service. "The wait time is for deceased donor kidneys is up to ten years."

That means only one in six people on UCSF's waitlist make it to a transplant.
The morning after the surgery, Cuthbertson knocked on Grealis's door, just a few rooms down from her own at the hospital.

"We did it, dear!" cried Grealis in her hospital gown as she opened her arms to Cuthbertson. 

"We did do it!" replied Cuthbertson.

"I can't believe you did this for me!" said Grealis.

The two are part of a kidney "chain," even though Cuthberston's kidney was not a match for Joan, it was a match for someone else, which in turn set off a chain reaction with the hospital ensuring kidneys for nine people.

"I asked her why she wanted to do this and...she said her mother had died early earlier and uh she wished she could have lived longer so I somehow reminded her of that ," said Grealis.

"I would have done anything to save my mom," said Cuthbertson. "She had something unrelated but I just thought I lost my mom- maybe I can help them keep their mom." 

"There are these saints that walk among us who decide I've got two good kidneys, I get to help someone, I can save someone I mean, it it's - I'm humbled, I'm in awe," said Gary Grealis, Joan's husband. "Anna's not just saving my wife, she's saving me, too."

Now, the two women share a lifelong bond.

"The benefit? It's worth it! It's not that big of a deal for me- it's a big deal for someone to have to live on dialysis," said Cuthbertson, who shrugs off any attention.

"She's just an amazing person!" said Grealis. "All of the things that she has done to selflessly give to others is amazing!"

Gary Grealis says Anna is now part of the family.

So far Matching Donors.com has saved close to 600 lives. 

Again, it is illegal to buy or sell organs in the United States, so here's how it works.

Donors are not paid any money for their organs, but the recipients pay a one-time $600 fee to be on the website which goes toward maintaining the website and organization.