Cynthia Blakemore did it in her father’s memory.
Blakemore’s father died seven years ago after spending two years on dialysis. She spent many hours by his side while the dialysis machines did their work, and she said the experience gave her perspective on the issues faced by those suffering from kidney failure.
Her father, Blakemore said, was not eligible for a transplant so she was not able to donate her kidney to him.
Yet she wanted to find a way to pay tribute to him, while helping others. And when she learned about Loyola University Medical Center’s Pay It Forward transplant program, and, specifically, heard surgeon Dr. John Milner talk about it, she knew she’d found that way.
“I heard [Milner] speak, and I signed up that afternoon,” she said. “My motivation was a lot of what Milner had to say, but also giving back to my dad.”
Blakemore, 58, lives in the Seasons Ridge subdivision of Montgomery, and she’s worked at Loyola for 30 years. She manages the hospital’s clinical laboratory department. She seems quiet and unassuming—not the type of person you’d immediately cast as a hero.
But to Memerto Asuncion, 47, of Cornell, N.Y., she undoubtedly is. Last September, Blakemore donated one of her kidneys to Asuncion, a complete stranger, through Loyola’s program, which sends donor organs across the country to those needing transplants in other hospital systems.
The program was launched last March, and Milner said 18 donors have come forward in that time. But it’s not just 18 transplants that have taken place.
Loyola’s living donor program finds recipients who have willing donors already, but are not compatible matches with them. The Loyola donors send their kidneys and the incompatible donors have theirs sent to others awaiting transplants, thus creating a chain.
Milner said the 18 donors since March have sparked 95 transplants across the country.
Seven of those donors are employees of Loyola, which officials believe may be a world record from one hospital. They’ve been dubbed the ''Seven Sisters of Loyola,'' and Wednesday, they were introduced to the world though a news conference at the School of Medicine in Maywood.
Five of them, including Blakemore, donated their kidneys to complete strangers, while the other two gave theirs to casual acquaintances. Their donations sparked a chain that led to 28 transplants.
Their stories are different but all are inspiring. Jodi Tamen of West Frankfort donated her kidney last April to a stranger, G. Murray Thomas of California. Thomas is a poet, and his new book, My Kidney Just Arrived, draws on his experience.
Barbara Thomas of Brookfield donated her kidney last October to a tenant living in a building she owned. Jane Thomas of Villa Park gave hers to a stranger, Aaron Green of Bellwood, last August.
Dorothy Jambrosek of Woodridge saw her kidney rushed to another Chicago-area hospital to help someone she’d never met last March.
“We’re just ordinary people who have chosen to make a difference in a way that seems extraordinary to some of you,” Jambrosek said. “But we believe there are others like us who are willing and able to make a difference.”
The other ''Sisters'' are Cynthia Lamb of Melrose Park, who dontated to a Rockford man she had never met, and Dr. Susan Hou of River Forest, who donated her kidney to one of her patients.
For Blakemore, the choice was immediate but it wasn’t always easy on her family.
“I think a lot of people, like my husband, were concerned but proud,” she said. “Unbeknown to me, he became my biggest cheerleader to donate.”
Blakemore likes to say she’s proof that you’re never too old to donate a kidney. Her recovery was quick and easy, she said, and she’s back to perfect health.
Although she has never met Asuncion, she said she would like to—many of the other "Sisters" have met the people they helped.
Mainly, she wants to be an advocate for organ donation. She tells anyone who will listen that the process was simple, and the rewards great. She even has a license plate that reads “PAFRWD,” her tribute to the Pay It Forward program.
“I hope if anyone sees me around town, they’ll ask me about it,” she said.