Hoping to find a kidney donor, Cubs fan Bridgett Kolls of Lombard went very public with her quest when she took a handmade poster to a baseball game last May.
Her sign was caught on camera, and by the end of the game, the 23-year-old’s phone was blowing up with messages. Strangers who saw the poster on television and the team’s social media accounts reached out to volunteer their kidney to Kolls, who was in need of a transplant after lupus ravaged her own.
Kolls currently undergoes dialysis three times a week to clean her blood, a job her kidneys can no longer do. A Chicago man, who previously was a complete stranger, ended up being a match.
“In November, one of the numbers that contacted me in May said, ‘Hey I have two more tests to do and then I can be your donor.’ I was like, what?”
He got the go-ahead in January. “I gave him a million thank you’s. He’s a very kind soul,” Kolls said.
The surgery was set for March 26 at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
But Kolls’ storybook ending has proved elusive.
“It all happened so fast,” Kolls recalls. “Everything was going fine in February, in March the transplant was set up.”
Suddenly, “things are closing, the kidney transplant is canceled,” Kolls said. “That’s why we’re going day-by-day here.”
Kolls’ transplant was one of hundreds of organ transplants postponed across the country. The Chicago area in particular has seen an almost complete stoppage of certain types of transplants since mid-March when the COVID-19 crisis prompted state leaders to issue a stay-at-home order, transplant experts said.
Doctors say the move is an effort to protect patients — especially organ recipients, who will become immunocompromised — from possible infection. They also point to a need to preserve hospital resources like ventilators as the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations remains high. That has forced area residents to wait, and hope, that their anticipated surgeries will soon be rescheduled.
A sharp drop in transplants
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, both living and cadaver transplants were postponed due to a lack of COVID-19 testing, said Dr. John Fung, co-director of the Transplant Institute at the University of Chicago and chief of the university’s Section of Transplantation.
Organs transplanted from those who have contracted or died from COVID-19 could spread the virus to their recipients. As such, without testing, available organs couldn’t be transplanted into waiting patients.
“We didn’t really have the ability to safely say, ‘this patient can go,’ until the testing was most widely available,” Fung said.
In the weeks since, testing has become more common, Fung said. Still, except for the most dire or exceptional of cases, transplants continue to be put on hold so as not to potentially expose the donor, recipient, transplant surgeons and other medical staff to COVID-19 in the hospital.
The pandemic threat is especially high for transplant recipients, who are immunosuppressed to prevent organ rejection, experts said.
“They don’t have the immune system needed to combat the virus,” said Dr. Amishi Desai, medical director for the kidney and pancreas transplant program at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
In addition, hospital resources like beds and ventilators are needed to treat COVID-19 patients.
“The end goal is to get patients back to transplantation, but safely,” Desai said, “with everything in place so it can go smoothly for them and they can have a safe outcome.”
According to statistics from the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) , no living donor transplants were performed between March 29 and April 22 in the Chicago area or the agency’s Great Lakes region.
That region includes Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The network contracts with the federal government to manage the nation’s organ transplant system, according to the group.
The first living donor transplant since March 29 in the region was reported to UNOS April 23, according to the nonprofit’s statistics. So far this year, UNOS has reported 256 living donor transplants in the Great Lakes region — a 21% drop from 2019.
Nationally, UNOS reported 1,568 living donor transplants performed as of April 23 this year. That’s a 27% decrease from the 2,155 living donor transplants reported in the U.S. by April 23, 2019.
The significant year-to-year drop was sudden. This year’s live donor transplant rates across the U.S. were running neck-and-neck with 2019′s totals until about mid-March, according to UNOS statistics, when the 2020 numbers dramatically fell off.
Fung said he doesn’t expect living donor transplants to resume at University of Chicago until Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifts the state’s stay-at-home order, which currently is scheduled to end May 30.
Illinois recipients on edge
One of those people is Steve Trilling, 67, of Buffalo Grove. Trilling was set to receive a kidney from his best friend’s wife in a surgery scheduled June 25 at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, said his wife Linda Trilling, who is also his caretaker.
But Steve Trilling’s donor is a second-grade teacher, his wife said. The June surgery date would have allowed her to recover before returning to class in the fall. They’ve been told the surgery won’t happen then, and don’t know when it might be rescheduled.
Now, Linda Trilling said, they fear the surgery won’t happen at all this summer.
“He just wants to live and be healthy for his grandchildren,” Linda Trilling said. “We have four grandchildren from ages 7 to 14, and we’re very close with them. It’s put our life on hold trying to keep him healthy because of the transplant.”
Trilling, who noted the couple is set to celebrate their 45th anniversary this year, is holding out hope.
“It was going to be our turn,” she said. "Something great.”
In Illinois, about 3,500 people are currently waiting for organs, said Kevin Cmunt, CEO of the nonprofit Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network.
“We have to get back to transplant normal a little faster. People are dying," Cmunt said. “If you’re not transplanting somebody today, somebody’s going to die.”
His group coordinates cadaver organ and tissue donation in Central and Northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana. Hospitals in the Chicago area that work with the group include Advocate Christ, Loyola, University of Chicago, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago, according to the organization.
Because live organ donations most commonly involve the kidney, those surgeries often can be postponed if recipients can remain on dialysis until the COVID-19 threat subsides, Cmunt and Desai said.
“The urgency is not there as much as it is for other organs,” Desai said.
Cadaver transplants — organs donated from people who have died — are especially limited in the Chicago area due to COVID-19 precautions.
As a result, many of the cadaver organs donated following deaths around Chicago are being transplanted elsewhere, due to the Chicago area’s high numbers of COVID-19 patients, Cmunt said. Recipients could be in another regional city or somewhere farther away, like Florida.
“We’re finding a home for the organs and helping people. It may not be in our local area. It may be a little further away. But we’re utilizing the gift,” Cmunt said.
That leaves many Illinois residents waiting for transplants on edge, trying to stay healthy enough for the surgery if and when it finally happens.
Back in Lombard, Kolls said she continues to stay in touch with her potential donor, who she still hasn’t met in person. He’s a White Sox fan, she chuckled, and lives near Little Village.
“He said that he would still be doing it, but you never know what a day will bring,” she said.
After her transplant, Kolls hopes to resume classes at College of DuPage, which she stopped attending due to health and financial concerns after the Spring 2019 semester. She is eyeing the school’s respiratory therapist program.
“I’m at a standstill right now because I need money,” Kolls said. “Me and my parents all help with medical bills, and I pay for school.”
Kolls said she looks forward to working full-time again. She previously worked in a gym and as a restaurant server while attending school.
“They say your energy levels raise after transplant dramatically, once you heal and all that. Right away you can feel more energy," Kolls said. “I’m excited for that."