How did a kidney donation from one veteran to another originate? Morgan Slaughter saw a sign—literally.
While scrolling Facebook looking for a new restaurant to try, the Air Force veteran noticed a post by Collegeville Bakery in Collegeville, PA, with a picture of a sign outside.
“On social media I am always looking up restaurants and food pages. I saw the bakery had posted a photo of its sign around Veterans Day,” Slaughter recalled. “It said something about a U.S. Air Force veteran needing a kidney.” That single post on social media would lead Slaughter on a nearly one-year journey, that would ultimately end with her donating her kidney to a fellow veteran, 52-year-old Craig Harris.
The Alabama-born Harris now lives in Audobon, PA, settling down in the Philadelphia area by way of his Air Force service. “For the majority of my career, I was a C5 flight engineer out of Dover, Delaware. I used to fly around the world delivering troops and cargo,” Harris said. “It was the best job I ever had in my life.” Harris retired from the Air Force in 2012 and went back to college to earn a bachelor's degree, which he used in the information technology field.
An alarming diagnosis
Harris’ life hit a sudden and scary speed bump, however, when in 2021 his primary care doctor told him his creatinine levels were high, meaning his kidneys were having issues filtering blood, and suggested he see a nephrologist. Days later, Harris received the alarming news: he had stage four kidney disease. According to the National Kidney Foundation, a stage four diagnosis means severe damage has already happened to the kidney, and efforts focused on developing a treatment plan to slow the loss of kidney function and from entering stage five, which is kidney failure.
“I had heard amazing things about Penn when it comes to organ transplant, so I wound up here,” Harris said, adding that his doctors and transplant specialists recommended he add his name to the National Kidney Exchange list, and find a living donor. “Kidneys from living donors last longer, have fewer complications, and provide earlier access to transplant,” said Mary Cate Wilhelm, a physician assistant on Penn’s Living Kidney Donor team. “Rather than waiting five or more years for a kidney from a cadaver,” she added, “an approved living donor allows the patient in need the ability to step out of line and start planning for their transplant. If the donor and recipient are both ready for transplant, we start planning for the surgeries.”
With the help of his wife, who worked for several decades in media and communications, Harris’ journey began to find a living donor. They began an all-out blitz sharing his story wherever they could: local radio stations, handing out flyers sharing Harris’ story, and even requesting a certain local bakery share his story on their outside marquee that caught Morgan Slaughter’s attention.
A veteran helps a fellow veteran in need
“When I saw the sign, and something in me said ‘I need to do this.’ So, I did a little research, and I actually found Craig on Facebook. I sent him a message just to ask how his journey was. I wanted to gauge a little bit about who I was about to potentially donate an organ to,” recalled Slaughter. After a brief exchange with Harris, Slaughter made an appointment with Penn the next day to see if she could donate. “The Penn team walked me through the process, I did a day full of lab testing, and although I wasn’t a match for Craig, I was able to donate for him through what’s called paired kidney donation,” said Slaughter.
Paired kidney exchange, through the National Kidney Registry (NKR), helps incompatible donors and recipients find their best match. The NKR is a registry or pool of potential living kidney donors and their intended recipients. “Sometimes a donor is not a suitable match for a recipient—whether that be because of blood type, antibodies, age, or kidney anatomy— so we will find a match for their kidney and their recipient through the NKR’s paired exchange program,” explained Wilhelm. Through the NKR, kidneys travel throughout the continental US to be transplanted into a well-matched recipient. This program also allows a patient like Morgan to donate a kidney on her own timeline which then provides a voucher for someone like Craig to be transplanted with his ideal kidney at a later date.
A secret surgery
Although Slaughter had been approved to donate a kidney through paired exchange for Harris, she kept it a secret from him. In fact, she only let her own family know about 10 days out from the surgery, and in May 2023, Slaughter successfully had one of her kidneys removed at Penn.
“The surgery went as planned and I was recovering in my room, Craig just happened to be active on Facebook. So, I asked ‘hey how are you?’ I didn’t know when he would be notified that someone had donated for him for a voucher. I asked if he had any updates about someone being able to donate. He said that there were a couple people who said they were getting tested, but he hadn’t heard of anyone being a match yet. So, I sent him a selfie of me in my hospital and wrote “well it’s already been done,” Slaughter said.
“I was out shopping buying supplies for my daughter's college graduation party when I got that message from Morgan. I just started to cry,” recalled Harris.
In late August of 2023, Harris successfully received a new kidney. Two days later, Slaughter made a trip to the Pavilion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, to meet Harris face-to-face for the first time as he recovered. In the emotional moment the two embraced each other, tears rolled down each of their faces. Once strangers, these two Air Force veterans were now bonded forever through living organ donation. “Thank you,” Harris said as he wrapped his arms around Slaughter. “We have to help each other,” Slaughter said wiping away tears. “Not even just one veteran to another, but people in general need to help each other out.”
Harris, who once thought the possibility of a complete stranger stepping forward to save his life seemed farfetched, now sat in a hospital room with a new lease on life. “It's great when a fellow Air Force veteran steps up to help another. We selflessly donate a lot of our adult life to serve our country. And for somebody to come up and selflessly give you a body organ? I’m speechless,” he said.
“I’m honored and grateful I was healthy and capable enough to give this gift to another human so he can live a happy life. Hopefully this starts a chain of people doing good things,” said Slaughter.
How you can donate
Penn’s Center for Living Donation participates in the National Kidney Registry’s (NKR) Kidney For Life Initiative. Every single person that donates a kidney at Penn receives the NKR’s Donor Shield protections which include lost wage reimbursement, travel cost reimbursement, coverage of complications, and prioritization for a living donor kidney in the unlikely event they ever need one in the future. Penn Medicine provides these and other supports for living donors through its Center for Living Donation. “More than four thousand patients die each year waiting for kidney transplant,” said Wilhelm. “You only need one kidney, and there’s dedicated team to walk donors through the process.” If you are interested in donating a kidney, visit Penn Medicine's Living Donor Kidney Transplant site.