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Donating kidney to stranger ‘awakened the beast’ in Crawford County man

MEADVILLE — Finding organ donor Eli Vendley among a dozen customers in a Meadville coffee shop was easier than ordering a caramel frappuccino.

Vendley sat toward the back of the cafe, but wore a green baseball hat emblazoned with “living donor” and a t-shirt that people recommended “donate life.”

“I bought two of the hats,” said Vendley, 31. “I wore this one and I gave the other one to Mike. It says, ‘Living Proof.'”

Mike is Michael Auen, a fellow Linesville resident who received one of Vendley’s kidneys during a Jan. 6 transplant surgeries at UPMC Hamot.

Both men’s lives have changed dramatically since the surgery. Auen now has a healthy kidney, while Vendley has found a new purpose in his life: organ donation awareness.

“There are currently about 106,000 people on the list to receive an organ,” Vendley said. “Every day, 166,324 people die. Even if only one-quarter of them qualify for donating an organ, we could fill the list in three days.”

Eli Vendley, 31, donated one of his kidneys Jan.  6 to fellow Linesville resident Michael Auen, whose image is shown on Vendley's computer tablet.  Vendley said the donation has spurred him to devote his life to raising organ donation awareness.

Eli Vendley, 31, donated one of his kidneys Jan. 6 to fellow Linesville resident Michael Auen, whose image is shown on Vendley’s computer tablet. Vendley said the donation has spurred him to devote his life to raising organ donation awareness.

Vendley didn’t know much about organ donation, and didn’t know Auen, when he learned about his need for a kidney transplant in May 2021.

Auen’s family had posted about his situation on a Linesville social media group, where Vendley came across it.

“What struck me was that he’s a veteran and three of his daughters currently serving in the military,” Vendley said. “I came from a military family and I was supposed to go to basic training (for the Army) when COVID started. It just struck close to home.”

Vendley texted the family and started the screening process at UPMC Hamot to become a kidney donor. He was found to be a match for Auen.

The transplant was delayed until Jan. 6 after Vendley started a new job, but he said that his commitment to giving a kidney to Auen never wavered.

“You only need one kidney,” Vendley said. “And if something happens to my remaining kidney, I almost go to the top of the transplant list because I was a kidney donor.”

Kidney donors who need a kidney transplant later in life do receive priority on the National Kidney Registry, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Kidneys from living donors have advantages: kidney surgeon

Fifty of Hamot’s first 91 kidney transplants have come from living donors like Vendley.

Of those 50 kidney donations, 31 have come from non-blood relatives, including spouses, anonymous donors and those matched through a chain of transplant surgeries.

“Kidneys from living donors have numerous advantages over ones taken from a cadaver,” said Dr. Rajesh Govindasamy, a Hamot transplant nephrologist. “The patient doesn’t have to wait, the surgeries are scheduled right next to each other. A kidney from a living donor also usually doesn’t have to be placed in a cold solution with ice (to preserve its function).”

Vendley awoke after his surgery feeling like he had “gone to the gym and done about 50 sit-ups,” but otherwise felt fine. He was discharged from Hamot just 24 hours after his surgery.

That same day, one of Auen’s daughters texted him.

“It was the first time Mike had paced his own in, like, three years,” Vendley said. “To know that it was something from my body that was able to give him this simple pleasure was almost overwhelming.”

Govindasamy said Hamot has heard similar responses from other living organ donors since the Erie hospital started its transplant program in 2015.

“What Eli is doing helps spread awareness,” Govindasamy said. “Not everyone should become a living donor, but at least they should agree to donate their organs when they die.”

Vendley hopes to spur more organ donations

Even though Vendley no longer has a kidney to give, he plans to devote his time and efforts to convince more people to donate their organs.

He volunteers with the Pittsburgh-based Center for Organ Recovery & Education and has applied to work there full time. Vendley will educate the public about what it’s like to be an organ donor during a presentation Saturday at 6 pm at Oasis Church, 836 Main St., Meadville.

“What this has done is awakened the beast,” Vendley said with a smile. “I am realizing the potential I have to tell people about organ donation.”

How to become an organ donor

To learn about organ donation, including how to be a living donor or donate after your death, visit the Center for Organ Recovery & Education at https://www.core.org.

Contact David Bruce at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ETNBruce.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Kidney donation spurs Crawford County man to promote organ transplants