A Loudoun Teacher Helps Her Student by Paying it Forward

Fifteen-year-old Loudoun County student Lexie Ruff is no stranger to adversity. Having been born with multiple health issues that ultimately damaged her kidneys, she has lived most of her young life undergoing 2-, or 3-a-day dialysis sessions and spending much of her time in and out of hospitals. Despite receiving a kidney transplant back in 2007 at two and a half years old, repeated kidney infections eventually resulted in a decline in function. Lexie’s health and stamina began to suffer. It was looking as though another transplant was in Lexie’s future.

Enter Christie Kaplan, Lexie’s fourth-grade teacher. As Lexie’s mom, Kimberly Dannels-Ruff, got to know Kaplan, she began sharing the frustrations and heartbreak of watching her daughter suffer the effects of her declining kidney function. The two became very close. Over the years following, the two remained in touch, and when it became apparent that Lexie would require a new kidney, Kaplan wanted to help.

Undergoing extensive testing over the course of the next year, Kaplan was eager to see if she might be able to donate her kidney to Lexie. She was devastated to learn she was not a match. Neither were any of Lexie’s friends or family. Lexie’s mom was eliminated from consideration early on due to a blood clotting disorder, and her father, Tobin, attempted to give his kidney to Lexie back in 2007, but due to a tragic complication in the operating room, his kidney was not viable, which was a gut-wrenching blow to the family.

The only hope was for Lexie to receive a kidney through the National Kidney Registry. With over 100,000 people on the waitlist, it is not uncommon to wait years for a kidney. Lexie was on that list for four years, all while her kidney was functioning at a mere 10 to 12%. Still, no donor was in sight.

Kaplan was not willing to give up. She truly felt that helping Lexie was something she was called to do, and when both families learned about the Johns Hopkins Paired Kidney Exchange Program, Kaplan didn’t give it a second thought and began the qualification process. It was her hope that she could indirectly help Lexie by donating her kidney to another patient on the waitlist.

They had no idea how quickly things would set in motion. They found a match for Kaplan in the first month. A teen from New Jersey would receive her kidney on January 16. “We learned right before Christmas that Christie’s kidney would be saving another child’s life while securing a kidney for Lexie,” Dannels-Ruff said. “We both cried. We were so thankful, happy, and relieved she was saving the lives of not just one, but two children.”

Kaplan’s recipient was a tough match with sensitivities against 99% of the population. There was little hope that they would ever find a donor kidney for him, and yet Kaplan’s was a perfect match. “An overwhelming sense of gratitude fills me to the core!” says Kaplan. “I was filled with excitement to be able to give the gift of LIFE to another child in need.”

Through Kaplan donating her kidney, Lexie was moved to the top of the recipient list. In what seemed a miracle, a donor from New York who had also gifted her kidney was quickly found to be a match for Lexie, and on January 7, 2020, Lexie received that gift.

Lexie and Kaplan’s friendship, and Kaplan’s subsequent donation through the Paired Kidney Exchange set off a chain reaction of other donors matched with recipients who would receive healthy kidneys. Without this program, some individuals struggling with end-stage renal disease may never have the opportunity to receive a kidney, and that may mean the difference between life and death.

Does donating a kidney come with some challenges? Sure. There is preparatory lab work, and some scans are required, but these pale in comparison to the benefits felt as a donor – and are immeasurable to the recipient. “Having to do dialysis, being in and out of the hospital, and having to get a lot of IVs and blood draws were difficult,” says Dannels-Ruff about Lexie before her transplant surgery. “She just wanted to be home with her dog.”

When people like Kaplan see the bigger picture of kidney donation through kidney exchange, they trigger a much larger chain reaction that takes on a life of its own. “We hope that our story inspires others to join the Paired Kidney Exchange Program, that it will help build trust in that program, and save even more lives,” says Dannels-Ruff.

Kaplan’s faith led her on this journey, and she hopes to encourage others to consider kidney donation. “I didn’t know or even think about organ donation very much, if at all, until Lexie. I also didn’t know that I didn’t have to be a perfect match with her to donate. Now that I know, I want to scream it from the rooftops! Donation saves lives. I hope that our story will inspire others to consider the Paired Kidney Exchange Program. This is the coolest club I’ve ever been in!”

For those interested in learning more about Lexie’s story, or the Johns Hopkins Paired Kidney Exchange Program, please view the resources below.

Johns Hopkins Paired Kidney Exchange Program
www.hopkinsmedicine.org/transplant/programs/kidney/ incompatible/paired_kidney_exchange.html

National Kidney Registry Statistics
www.kidney.org/news/newsroom/factsheets/Organ- Donation-and-Transplantation-Stats

Lexie’s Story (YouTube)