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A father’s kidney donation comes from the heart

As a cancer survivor’s kidneys went into decline, VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center helped her father give the gift of a healthier life.

Two people on a hike After being turned away from another facility, VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center took on John Spurrier’s complex kidney transplant procedure to help improve the quality of life of his daughter, Jacqueline Spurrier, a cancer survivor. (Contributed photo)

By Sean Gorman

Most 17-year-olds are focused on the next big changes in their lives. That might include getting their first job, applying to college or getting their own apartment.

But at age 17, Jacqueline Spurrier’s life was changed in a different way. In 2001, the teenager was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cell cancer. Thankfully, she survived and has continued to live a full life with her family and friends.

However, the chemotherapy and radiation treatments that cured her cancer also damaged her kidneys, opening the door to new health challenges. About five years later, doctors told Jacqueline her kidney function was in decline.

They advised her to adhere to a strict diet and to stay fit. She worked out at the gym, took frequent walks and tried to stay active.

“I made it last as long as I could with the kidneys I had,” she said.

But it became clear she would need a kidney transplant in 2021.

“I started feeling the effects of fatigue and dizziness, with the foggy brain and all that, being very forgetful,” Jacqueline said.

Her father, John Spurrier, offered to donate his own kidney – a step that would help move the transplant process along quicker. The gesture stunned his friends. Many were shocked or certainly intrigued that he was so readily taking this step.

John was a bit surprised by their reaction.

“If it were your daughter, I am pretty certain you would not hesitate for a second,” John said. “There was really no question at all for me.”

But while John’s desire to help his daughter came from his heart, the very same heart that would provide some complexity in their shared journey to transplant. Eventually, the pair were referred to VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center, where experts are equipped to handle the most complex health conditions and transplants.


Father and daughter at prom

Jacqueline Spurrier was diagnosed with ovarian cell cancer in high school. Because of the cancer treatment's toll on her body, Jacqueline knew at some point in her life that she would need a kidney transplant. (Contributed photo)


A transplant put on hold to save another

John and Jacqueline planned to have the transplant done at a hospital closer to where they live in Hampton Roads. Both went through a battery of tests to ensure they were a match and that each of them was healthy enough to undergo the procedure.

The testing uncovered that John had aortic stenosis — a narrowing of a heart valve that can lead to heart failure. He had known since childhood that he had a heart murmur, but he did not have noticeable symptoms. An avid runner, he did not experience chest pains or shortness of breath while exercising.

At first, John’s local doctor recommended they do the transplant and follow up on the heart issues in “a couple of years.”

“That was the initial plan,” John said.

But that plan changed after John passed out while running on New Year’s Day in 2023. Doctors realized the aortic stenosis was now severe and needed urgent attention.

“They said, ‘we cannot do the kidney donation until we do the heart,’” John said. The surgery John needed was to correct his heart valve condition.

John came to VCU Health Pauley Heart Center on February 9, 2023, for an aortic valve replacement with an artificial valve performed by his cardiothoracic surgeon, Mohammed Quader, M.D.

“God has given me the opportunity to help with her health and to restore her health,” John said. “It was a total blessing, and it was a privilege to have VCU Health do this for us.”

God has given me the opportunity to help [Jacqueline] with her health and to restore her health. It was a total blessing, and it was a privilege to have VCU Health do this for us.

John Spurrier, living kidney donor

John recovered quickly but needed to be on blood-thinning medication for the rest of his life. This is necessary to prevent blood clots for people with artificial valves. However, being on blood thinners also complicated his efforts to be Jacqueline’s kidney donor due to concerns he could experience higher blood loss and associated surgical risks during the kidney donation procedure.

After reaching out to his local transplant center with the results of his heart procedure, John was told being on this medication meant he could not be Jacqueline’s kidney donor. John was stunned. Despite his efforts to appeal the decision, he was still turned down.

Expertise the Spurrier’s could only find at Hume-Lee Transplant Center

John reached out to Quader to tell him the news. The heart surgeon contacted Dhiren Kumar, M.D., medical director of living donor kidney transplant, and Amit Sharma, M.D., living donor transplant surgeon at Hume-Lee Transplant Center, to see if the Spurriers could instead get their transplant in Richmond.

“We are a tertiary care center,” Quader said. “We are supposed to be able to take care of these complex situations.”

Although blood thinners do increase the risk of bleeding, that risk is manageable with the right team overseeing the procedure, Kumar adds. Additionally, the risk to John was being weighed against the benefits of a life-changing transplant for his daughter as well as the unquantifiable benefit a parent feels when they are able to help their child.

“Our team is highly experienced and well-equipped to handle the most complex cases,” Kumar said. “We were confident we could do the transplant safely for the patient and provide all the benefits that come with kidney donation and kidney transplantation. To us, it was an acceptable risk in the right hands.”

The transplant team manages a high volume of cases each year, meaning many patients from across the commonwealth and region specifically seek Hume-Lee's expertise. According to the Organ Transplant and Procurement Network, Hume-Lee ranked 18th in the nation for organ transplants with 577 surgeries performed in 2023. Based on the number of procedures, the center was 19th in the nation for kidney transplants.

After being thoroughly evaluated by clinicians, both John and Jacqueline were cleared for transplant by the Hume-Lee Transplant Center’s selection committee. John was temporarily off blood thinners before the procedure on September 5, 2023.

Learn how you can share the gift of life by becoming a living organ donor. 

Amit Sharma, M.D., performed the fully robotic surgery that removed John’s kidney before the organ was transplanted into Jacqueline. The minimally invasive procedure, where Sharma uses a console to maneuver robotic arms, offers key benefits including smaller incisions with less risk of bleeding, less pain and faster recovery.

“Ultimately, it results in less blood loss because you're more precise,” Sharma said.

Months after the procedure, Kumar says both Jacqueline and John have been doing well. Jacqueline’s kidney function has been improving and she no longer faces the prospect of dialysis.

“Her functional capacity was dwindling. Her ability to enjoy life was dwindling,” Kumar said. “And now that is completely reversed with a kidney transplant.”

Her dad’s gift fills Jacqueline with an immense feeling of gratitude.

“How do you ever thank or are thankful enough for something like that?” Jacqueline said. “It’s amazing. I feel our lives now are much more intertwined. He has made a way for me to have a second chance at life. I just turned 40. I still have a long career and life ahead of me. I couldn’t have functioned having to do dialysis three times a week and the diet restrictions. I wouldn’t have been able to live a full and happy life.”

After seeing his daughter’s health struggles for years, John says he is also thankful for the opportunity to donate his organ.

“God has given me the opportunity to help with her health and to restore her health,” John said. “It was a total blessing, and it was a privilege to have VCU Health do this for us.”