Kidney transplant seeker uses Twitter to find match

MINNEAPOLIS — William the Conqueror defeated Chris’ archenemy Harold, but he never could have done it without Scott.

Sounds like a weekly soap-opera update from “As the Medieval World Turns,” but it’s actually the tale of two guys, a traveling kidney and saving lives through social media.

Chris Strouth needed a kidney transplant. He’d been on dialysis for months after Berger’s disease (which he called “Harold”) wreaked havoc on his renal system. So he tweeted about it, casting a wide electronic net with a plea to anyone he was even remotely connected to online. He got an impressive 19 offers, and one match — casual acquaintance and Facebook friend Scott Pakudaitis of St. Paul, whose left kidney, dubbed “William the Conqueror,” was transplanted into Strouth in December. Both are doing well, and the rest is Facebook history.

“Part of my culture growing up was to be involved and help people,” Pakudaitis said. “A friend of mine had gone through being a donor for a relative of his, and he was just fine afterward.”

Before agreeing to become a donor, he checked with his own family to make sure none of them anticipated needing a kidney someday.

“Oh, sure, so I was your second choice,” joked Strouth.

On a recent afternoon in Strouth’s northeast Minneapolis studio, the two men sat down — in front of a coincidentally kidney-shaped table — to talk about their unusual connection and respective experiences. Aside from both being culture vultures, the pair are a study in contrasts. Strouth, a musician, filmmaker and teacher, is a gregarious wisecracker and an extreme nonlinear thinker who seems to know everyone. Pakudaitis, a research and data analyst for St. Catherine University and freelance photographer, is a self-described introvert with an endearing, eccentric passion: He adores squirrels.

As is common in Facebookworld, Strouth, 41, and Pakudaitis, 44, were only slightly acquainted, but have overlaps in their friend circles.

The occasion marked the first time the two men had seen each other since the hospital.

“Through the entire course of putting this together we never spoke on the phone or in real time,” Strouth said. “The whole thing was through Facebook and Twitter. I would send long messages to which Scott would not reply for a while and I would feel panicked that he didn’t like something I wrote. Then he’d answer and I’d think, ‘Good, I’m still getting the kidney.’”

Social media have been used to advance worthy causes since MySpace logged its first few members, but actually finding a donor organ via Twitter or Facebook is a newer phenomenon. It may not technically be more personal than a targeted mass mailing, or a flier on a club bulletin board. But it feels more personal.

Pakudaitis remembers feeling calm pre-surgery, even joking with his doctor about making sure to take the right kidney. Strouth said he was vomiting with nervousness — a natural reaction, but he was in experienced hands.

The University of Minnesota Medical Center has been performing organ transplants since 1963, longer than any other place in the world, and also holds the record for the highest number of living-organ transplants, including more than 4,000 kidneys. Cathy Garvey, a transplant director and coordinator, has seen firsthand how Facebook is being used to connect with possible donors.

“Typically, it’s been people who need a second transplant, who already know they’re not compatible with family or friends, who push the search out farther,” Garvey said. “Church bulletins, workplace newsletters, approaching TV stations to put it on the news. Social media is the logical next step.”

Some would-be donors have the best intentions, but don’t pass a required psychosocial test, she said: “Some people can’t handle the stress. If they have financial worries or a long history of mental illness, we don’t want anything to upset the apple cart. We did take an extra look at Scott because he and Chris have a looser relationship.”

Pakudaitis knew they had to make sure he was doing it for the right reasons, he said, adding they looked closely at his attitude toward volunteering. He’s been a longtime Big Brother, has given time to Habitat for Humanity and even cares for injured baby squirrels at a wildlife conservatory.

Social media also helped support for both donor and donee grow exponentially.

Chris: “I got a thousand Facebook messages the week of the surgery. We had numerous Catholic churches praying for us, a Buddhist temple, a bunch of Lutherans, a pagan sect and at least two Satanists that I know of, so we were pretty much covered.”

Scott: “That was my experience, too. Every faith was represented. I said, ‘Pray for the surgeons, that they’ve got steady hands and are well rested.’”

Chris: “Oh, I wanted them to pray for me.”

Scott: “Well, you needed that; I didn’t.”

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