Julia was only 15-years-old when she was diagnosed. We were all blind-sided. I was thrilled to be at NewYork-Presbyterian because I knew that we were at the best hospital.
Wife and Husband Donate Kidneys, Saving Multiple Lives
From baby’s first words to school science projects and graduation, parents take great joy in recounting their child’s milestones. But what if it all came crashing down?
Time stood still for mom Shannon Mulroy when her teenage daughter Julia Mulroy suddenly became sick with a rare kidney disease that had no cure.
“Julia was a healthy, average teenage girl. She played lacrosse and soccer,” says Mom Shannon of West Islip, New York. “All of a sudden her eyes started swelling. We gave her Benadryl, but she had no allergies. I remember Julia saying, ‘Mom, you have to look at my legs,’ which were swollen too.”
After three weeks of testing and extensive bloodwork at a local hospital in Long Island, doctors suggested sending a biopsy to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center because they had the best pathologists, explains mom Shannon.
Doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian diagnosed Julia with an aggressive type of nephrotic syndrome called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), which attacks the kidney’s tiny filtering units—called glomeruli—and causes scarring that leads to permanent kidney damage. Julia began a special low-sodium diet and was put on prednisone and other medications with strong side effects. After about 10 months, Julia’s medications became toxic and her kidney function started plummeting.
“Julia was only 15-years-old when she was diagnosed. We were all blind-sided,” says mom Shannon. As hard as it was, Shannon knew they were in good hands.
“I was thrilled to be at NewYork-Presbyterian because I knew that we were at the best hospital,” says Shannon.
Under the care of a wonderful pediatric transplant nephrologist by the name of Dr. Namrata Jain, and Dr. Andrew Bomback, a nephrologist who specializes in rare glomerular diseases, but also conducts research, Julia would have access to the most advanced care—something that can make all the difference for a child with a rare disease.
“Because this is a very complex disease Dr. Jain always discussed everything with Dr. Bomback and other colleagues—constantly learning and seeing if there was more that could be done,” says Shannon.
As Julia’s condition worsened, her glomeruli became so scarred that they were unable to filter her blood. Eventually, Julia went into kidney failure and doctors spoke about putting her on dialysis to stay alive, and even kidney transplant. Dr. Jain’s team started her on hemodialysis as a bridge to kidney transplant
“Julia was missing a lot of school—everything from prom to graduation, but the thought of dialysis was the darkest moment for me. I had visions of my dad and niece who suffered from kidney disease,” says Shannon who struggled with seeing her teenage daughter so sick.
An Unlikely Hero
Julia needed a new kidney and was running out of time.
“I desperately wanted to be Julia’s kidney donor, but Dr. Jain felt that it was best to use another living donor because so much is unknown in terms of genetic mutations,” says Shannon explaining the need to look outside of the family to find a life-saving kidney donor.
Shannon wrote a heartbreaking letter describing her daughter’s situation and shared it with all of her friends and social media contacts, including the sports teams where Julia’s twin brother played at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington, Long Island. Little did Shannon know that a mom from her son’s baseball team would come forward, offering to donate her kidney.
“The people who I thought would be there, were not. I had good friends who said they wanted to donate, but then never followed through. It’s a big ask, I know,” says Shannon.
Lisa Calla, a lawyer from Smithtown, New York, and mom of two teen boys who were on the baseball and football teams with Julia’s twin brother, made the life-saving decision to donate.
“I remember reading Shannon’s letter and thinking ‘What if that was my daughter?’ and in that instant I thought that maybe I could be a match. I filled out the application without saying a word to Shannon or my husband. It almost didn’t feel like a decision for me, but something that I was supposed to do,” says Lisa Calla.
To meet criteria for kidney donation, Lisa underwent comprehensive evaluations at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia to ensure her blood type and antibodies were a match for Julia. Tests ranged from blood and urine tests to electrocardiograms, chest X-rays, CT scans, and mammography. Despite a long day of testing, Lisa felt grateful to have the opportunity to have a full health workup at a top hospital.
“Besides the fact that you are helping someone, you receive confirmation that you can donate. It can help you find out if you have a health issue,” says Lisa.
“I put aside my fears. I didn’t feel nervous until two days before surgery,” says Lisa who credits her husband Guy Calla as being her rock. “I felt at peace and felt lucky to have my husband by my side,” says Lisa who has been together with Guy for 34 years.
Julia’s New Kidney
On June 27, 2019 at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, Julia Mulroy successfully underwent the six hour kidney recipient surgery with pediatric transplant surgeon Dr. Rodrigo Sandoval, while Lisa Calla, underwent the kidney donation surgery with Dr. Lloyd Ratner. Both surgeries couldn’t have gone better and Julia and Lisa recovered beautifully.
“I felt 100% about our team and that trust is so important—everyone from the doctors, nurses, and aids, as well as child life service, the social worker, chief living donor coordinator, and even the pharmacist who was a walking encyclopedia,” says mom Shannon, who credits the exceptional care at NewYork-Presbyterian with saving her daughter’s life.
The Mulroy and Callas families have grown even closer as a result of the donation, trading photos of their kids who are now freshmen in college.
After the successful transplant surgery, Shannon gave Lisa and Julia matching silver kidney bean necklaces with the date of their transplant surgery engraved on the back.
“You say thank you to someone who holds the door for you at the grocery store, but how do you say thank you to someone who saves your daughter’s life? I thank Lisa and appreciate her, “says Shannon who is beyond grateful for Lisa’s selfless donation.
Big Hearts, Big Kidneys
It takes a big heart to donate to an organ to a friend, let alone a stranger. In a heartwarming twist with a Hollywood-like ending, Lisa’s donation made a big impact on her husband Guy Calla, who then decided to donate his kidney to an anonymous recipient. When Guy Calla called NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia’s Chief Living Donor Coordinator Brian Runge during the COVID-19 pandemic to ask about donating his kidney, he explained how Brian was confused at first because his wife Lisa had just donated one year ago.
“I probably would have never considered organ donation if I hadn’t seen what Lisa did and how it affected Julia and her family,” says Guy. “There are very few chances in life to directly help someone and contribute to someone’s extended life. That is something that I really thought deeply about.”
In September 2020, Guy Calla successfully underwent kidney donation surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia with Dr. Ratner and became a kidney donor just like his wife Lisa. Instead of donating to a friend or family member, Guy donated to an anonymous or non-directed recipient. Although anonymous donors are not told any details about who receives their donation, the gift of organ donation is not lost on Guy. By donating an organ without an intended recipient, Guy is directly helping to increase the donor pool and his selfless donation kicks off what is called a donor chain, which helps numerous patients.
“It really is such a wonderful story and is what inspired me to be a non-directed donor. It was one of most rewarding experiences that I have ever been through. We are living proof that [living organ donation] works,” says Guy.
Lisa and Guy not only have a big heart, but now a big kidney too—illustrating the amazing resilience of the human body. If one kidney is removed, the remaining kidney will increase in size to compensate for the loss of the donated kidney, meaning that Lisa and Guy will enjoy a perfectly normal life, albeit with one kidney.
“They took my right kidney and Lisa’s left kidney,” says Guy who jokes that he and his wife are a perfect match.
The Gift of Donation
Shannon’s relentless drive to save her daughter’s life has led her to advocate for donation, research, and finding a cure for FSGS. Jokingly referring to herself as “MOMster”, Shannon will do anything for her daughter Julia including registering others to become an organ donor and doing speaking engagements to help spread the word.
“I am a strong advocate for kidney donation and will do everything in my power to help find a cure for my daughter’s rare kidney disease. I often speak about the importance and need for organ donation for nephrotic syndromes,” says Shannon who volunteers with LiveOnNY.
Shannon, is beyond thankful for friend Lisa Calla’s donation, and credits pediatric transplant surgeon Dr. Rodrigo Sandoval, pediatric nephrologist Dr. Namrata Jain, and social worker Nancy Indelicato for her daughter’s successful transplant and exceptional care.
With more people on the kidney transplant waitlist than any other organ, live donations are desperately needed. For 16-year-old Julia, the life-saving kidney donation meant everything. Julia is still battling her rare kidney disease FSGS, but thanks to the transplant, she is now 18-years-old and enjoying life as a college freshman.
“It’s not a cure, but that is just the reality,” says Shannon who explains that FSGS began attacking Julia’s new kidney shortly after the transplant. “We were prepared for this because she has such an aggressive form of FSGS. Thanks to such a strong kidney from Lisa, and Julia’s incredible strength, her kidney function still remains great,” says Shannon.
In honor of April’s National Donate Life Month, the Mulroy’s and Callas’ urge others to consider donating a life-saving organ.