Praying for an angel: Strangers discover they are a match for a kidney transplant

La’Tanya Foster and Christy Crocker are devout Christians—both active in their churches and wholeheartedly believe in the power of prayer.

More than 12 years ago, the women had never even met, nor did they know that a mutual friend would be responsible for a life-changing experience. In 2009 Crocker gave Foster a kidney—saving Foster’s life.

In May 2004, at the age of 30, Foster was diagnosed with kidney disease—a result in part from continued high blood pressure and being on anti-inflammatories for childhood knee injuries. “I was diagnosed because I had a chronic cough and I was extremely tired,” recalls Foster.

La’Tanya FosterBy the time she was diagnosed with End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), Foster only had 10% kidney function and had to immediately start dialysis—going to four-and-a-half-hour sessions three days a week and spent the remaining days recuperating.

While undergoing dialysis, Foster met her future husband, Marvin, who had a heart transplant in 2007. They were married11 months after they met. Foster says Marvin’s transplant and her dialysis only strengthened their marriage.

“We understood each other’s needs—we had a beautiful transplant connection,” she says. “That's why getting back to living was so important to me.” Marvin was able to see Foster through her transplant, but he died in August 2019. “His heart transplant was only expected to last 10 years, but God gave him 12 so he could change my life for the better.”

But back in 2007 the treatments took a toll on Foster and as time went on, she struggled with depression while she patiently hoped and prayed for a matching kidney donor to return her to health.

“Once I started dialysis, I felt a little better physically, but mentally I wasn't good,” she says. “I was still very tired on dialysis [and] depression was terrible,” she says. Foster underwent dialysis for four years before Crocker changed her life for the better.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as of April 13, there are 3,267 people in Ohio on the waiting list for an organ transplant. Of those, 2,372 are waiting for a kidney. In 2020, 1,138 kidney transplants were performed from both living and deceased donors (2,053 transplants were made for all organ donations).  About half of all Ohioans on the waiting list for organ transplants are in Northeast Ohio, according to Lifebanc, the Warrensville Heights-based organ and tissue recovery nonprofit organization.

The need for organ donors is always a great one, says Heather Mekesa, COO of LifeBanc, but with April being National Donate Life Month, she emphasizes the constant need for donors. “There are people waiting for transplants,” she explains, adding that one organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people and one organ, eye, and tissue donor can save and heal the lives of more than 50. “But if those folks aren’t donating, people tend to wait longer on the waiting list.”

Mekesa emphasizes that living donors can help someone in need by donating a kidney or part of their liver (which regenerates). Living donors are also used with other organs, but the instances are less common.

For those waiting for a kidney, the wait is an average of one year, Mekesa says, but it can be much longer. Patients waiting often must go on regular dialysis and eat restricted diets.

Foster, now 47, was on dialysis for four years before meeting Crocker in 2008. Both women say their introduction by a mutual friend was some sort of positive twist of fate.  

In the time Foster was praying for a matching kidney donor, Crocker, too, had been praying for the past five years that her fiancée, Dwight, would also find a matching kidney donor. On their wedding day, Sep. 26, 1998, the prayers came true.

“His kidney came via police-delivered-message at our wedding reception because [the wedding] was outside and there was no reception there for everyone’s pagers,” Crocker recalls. “We left the reception and went to the hospital. It was a huge answer to our prayers, and it was a blessing.”

Dwight is healthy today, but the waiting, hoping, and praying inspired Crocker to return the favor. Despite family objections, Crocker decided she would donate a kidney to someone who needed one.

“I was praying for a while for someone who needed a kidney badly,” she recalls, adding that a church member, Tony, had asked a group to pray for a friend in kidney failure. “I was with a small group at church, praying for Tony’s friend who needed a kidney transplant.”

La’Tanya (right) and her donor, Christy Crocker. Crocker says she assumed the friend was a man. She didn’t know until later that Tony’s friend was Foster.

Tony, who knew Foster from work, had gotten tested to donate a kidney to Foster. But he was not a match, so he promised Foster he would put the word out at his church that she needed a kidney. Shortly after the prayer circle, Crocker and Foster connected.

“Our eyes met, and something happened,” says Crocker of meeting Foster. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I got home and I wondered if this is the one I’m supposed to give my kidney to. I called Tony and said, ‘I’m going to give my kidney to your friend.’”

After bloodwork, and plenty of screenings and tests, doctors determined that Foster and Crocker were a match. “It was the craziest thing,” Foster says of the circumstances.

The two went ahead to with the transplant, and on March 16, 2009 the procedure was a success. “My health since transplant has been great—I'm back to living,” says Foster. “I work a part-time job that I enjoy. I love baking and cooking. I am an all-star champion shopper. I have created beautiful memories with my family and friends that would not have been possible without a donor.”

Crocker says the experience solidified her faith, and she made a lifelong friend along the way. “It taught me I can trust the lord—that I can carry out things for him and make a better place,” she says. “We’ve become friends and we call each other ‘kidney sisters.’”

Foster still has her fistula—a port in her forearm to provide dialysis—which she decided to keep in case of rejection. But she says it’s also a great conversation piece. “People ask questions, and it gives me a chance to tell them about being an organ donor,” she laughs.

Twelve years later, Crocker and Foster still get together on the anniversary of the transplant to have dinner. “We have a kidney transplant party once a year,” laughs Foster. “It’s a blessing—it’s the greatest gift I’ve received.”

Lifebanc’s Mekesa says Foster’s and Crocker’s stories are a true example why being an organ door is so important.

“You can be a hero to a friend, relative or even as an anonymous good human simply be serving as a living donor,” she says. There are more than 95,000 people waiting for a kidney and nearly 14,000 waiting for a liver in the U.S. These folks desperately need a transplant to save their life. By agreeing to be a living donor, you’re saving that life plus reducing the number of people waiting, while increasing the chances a match is found for others.”

Mekesa also stressed that people register to be a donor when renewing their driver’s licenses. “We talk about organ donation as a gift because that’s exactly what it is. By becoming an organ and tissue donor, you have just agreed to help as many as 75 people. And you’re also giving a gift to your family, as many people share how knowing that their loved one saved or helped so many other lives, was quite comforting to them.”

To register with Lifebanc to become a donor, click here.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.