Saving a Stranger
“Ms. Corman ran out of the classroom crying after she got a phone call about her brother.”
That’s what Hudson Kyde told his mother, Jillian, after a school day in December 2021.
“I texted her and said, ‘I don’t mean to pry, but Hudson said you were really upset at school. Is everything OK with your brother?’ recalled Jillian, who knew that the teacher’s twin was living with kidney disease. “‘I didn’t even know his name at that point.’”
Kristen Corman, now Kristen Foley, explained that her brother, Nick, needed a kidney and that the wait list was long, but she thought — being a twin — that she’d have no problem giving him one of hers. Her assumption was wrong, and over the next four months, other family and friends were ruled out. In April 2022, Nick – a 26-year-old aspiring firefighter – was starting dialysis when Jillian, while having lunch with her sons at school, offered for she and her husband, Kevin, to get tested.
“‘Why don’t you send home the paperwork in Hudson’s homework folder, and we’ll fill it out,’” Jillian told Kristen, whom the family had known since 2019, when she taught their oldest son, Brady.
In mid-May, as she was driving to a work event in Nashville, Jillian received a life-changing call from the UK Transplant Center. She was a match.
A month later after multiple physical tests, scans and blood draws, Jillian was donating a kidney to someone she’d met only a week before surgery.
“People sometimes look at me like I’m crazy or something,” Jillian said. “Once I got tested, there was never a moment of hesitation that I would do it.”
Dream on the brink
Nick Corman and his sister grew up with a single mother on the north side of Lexington. He was barely talking in complete sentences when he discovered role models whose values and commitment he hoped to emulate.
“At three years old, I knew in my heart this is what I wanted to do,” Nick said. “And I wanted to work for the Lexington fire department.”
Twenty-two years later, Nick was working with the fire department in Berea, Ky., in preparation for enrollment in the Lexington Fire Training Academy. He felt tired all the time, but chalked it up to the strains and stressors of the job. His labs worsened, but, as an otherwise fit and active man, he tried to increase his hydration and keep even closer tabs on what he put into his body.
By the time he was an official recruit in Lexington, doctors discovered he was in renal failure. That prematurely ended Nick’s first attempt to complete the program, and prompted him to enter the care of Dr. Megan Robinson, a UK HealthCare nephrologist who started him on the path to a transplant.
“I was terrified,” Nick said. “I was never a needle fan, now all of a sudden it’s, ‘You’re gonna need a transplant.’ I’m like, ‘What does that entail?’”
Because of his age and overall good health, Nick was able to go a few more months before starting peritoneal dialysis, where a catheter is inserted through the lining of the abdomen (called the peritoneum) to filter blood for those with failing kidneys.
“Young people have healthy hearts, healthy lungs,” said Dr. Meera Gupta, surgical director of UK HealthCare’s kidney and pancreas transplant program. “Usually their only medical problem is their kidney disease. And that’s easy to treat with a kidney transplant alone and the rest of their body doesn’t suffer. When you have an older patient with other medical comorbidities, and then they develop kidney failure, it complicates all their other medical problems and can exacerbate conditions like heart failure.”
If Nick and his family hadn’t found a living donor, he would have needed long-term dialysis treatment. That meant Nick’s pursuit of a firefighting career would be on ice indefinitely, and possibly for good.
He was in the middle of dialysis preparation when Kristen got a call from Jillian in the middle of the school day. It was good news, which Kristen promptly relayed to her twin.
“She said, ‘Nick, Jillian’s a match. You’re gonna get a kidney,’” Nick said. “I was hooked up to a dialysis machine and was like, ‘Really?’ I couldn’t fathom it yet.”
‘I thought my mom was a hero’
Deciding to donate a kidney to anyone as a living donor is a sacrifice that doesn’t come without risks and questions.
Living donors go through an extensive psychological evaluation to determine their mental fitness to donate. They also have the right to opt out all the way up to the start of surgery.
During her psychological exam, Jillian had to reckon with the possibility that one of her three children — Brady, Hudson and Cooper — might need a kidney someday and she would be unable to provide one.
Jillian never doubted her decision.
“Beyond faith in God and family support, which is absolutely key and what inspires me daily … I trusted modern science and the transplant team itself,” Jillian said. “They were so thorough. They never hesitated to answer any and all questions that I had during the complicated process of it all. That would have been where my hesitation would have come in, if I didn’t really believe that I was at the best transplant center and didn’t believe in my surgeons, all the nurses, the donor advocates. They were incredible with our transplant care before, during and after.
“They make sure that you’re not going to regret this and that you’ve really thought it through.”
Jillian was told that her surgeon, Dr. Alexandre Ancheta, was very precise with his incisions. She can confirm that.
“My incision is beautifully precise in the four different spots,” Jillian said.
The experience left a lasting impression on her oldest son, Brady, who has always been curious about science and was old enough to understand the seriousness of Nick’s situation. Prior to the transplant, the then-fourth grader watched videos of kidney transplantations on YouTube and asked smart questions of the UK HealthCare doctors as he sat bedside to help her recover. He’s since drawn from the experience to craft an award-winning science fair project focused on kidney hydration.
Brady was interviewed by TV journalists after news of the successful surgery spread.
“He said ‘I thought my mom was a hero. It doesn’t really get more heroic than that,’” Jillian said “That’s so crazy, right? That you could do something that not only impacts another family, but (has) your own child thinking that you’re a hero? That was definitely a moment I’ll never forget.”
A second mom
Nick had never spoken to Jillian before she became a matching donor and had never been in the same room with her until a week before their surgeries. Now?
“It’s like having a second mom,” Nick said. “She’s raising three kids and constantly checking on me.”
Jillian’s post-surgery recovery was a little slower than Nick’s — “They don’t lie, when you get a transplant, you feel great, but the donor, it’s like they got hit by a truck,” Nick said. But they did as much rehab as they could do together in and out of the hospital. The transplant aftermath, for both of them, went as smoothly as it could have.
That continues to be the case for Nick, who has a lifetime of immunosuppression drugs in front of him. In all likelihood, he’ll probably need another kidney transplant sometime before he retires. Whether that ends up being the case or not, Nick’s care team is doing all it can to set him up for success.
“The average living donor kidney transplant lasts about 15 to 18 years, and he’s only 27 years old,” Dr. Gupta said. “From where I’m sitting, we want to get him the best possible lifespan out of this kidney and push back any need for more kidney transplants until much later.
“We had a woman whose kidney lasted about 54 years, and she died with a working kidney. That’s really great to see, and that’s something we’d really like to see in someone like him.”
On July 14, 2023 — 24 years after his dream ignited — Nick graduated from the Lexington Fire Training Academy. Like all graduates of the program, he was brought on as a one-year probationary hire. If that first year goes smoothly, Nick will earn the title of firefighter.
His path was, and will continue to be, different than most, but his reasons for wanting to wear the badge were untarnished: a stranger saved Nick, and he’s eager to return the favor.
“Someone once told me, ‘We provide a customer service,’” Nick said. “And the customer service is to help people. No matter if it’s a cardiac arrest, a stubbed toe, a structure fire. No matter what it is, we’re there to provide a service. And when we end our interaction with them, our goal is to make sure they had a positive experience.
“When you work in this profession, you don’t work with co-workers. It’s your family. You live with these individuals a third of your life. You go to the firehouse and eat, sleep and hang out with these guys. And then when people call 911, you go out the door, make the run and help people in their worst time.”