Gift of life: Living donors give to strangers to save loved ones

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Paired donation creates a donor tree so everyone has a better chance of getting a matched organ. (Source: 3TV) Paired donation creates a donor tree so everyone has a better chance of getting a matched organ. (Source: 3TV)
Tom Fulcher, left, and Michelle Fulcher, right. (Source: 3TV) Tom Fulcher, left, and Michelle Fulcher, right. (Source: 3TV)
Michelle Fulcher is featured on a billboard for paired donation. (Source: 3TV) Michelle Fulcher is featured on a billboard for paired donation. (Source: 3TV)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Can you imagine needing a life-saving transplant and every friend or family member who offered to get tested to see if they were a match wasn't compatible? There is a way they can give to a complete stranger to save you.

Most people only think about being an organ donor when they check-off the box for their driver's license.

Well, you don't have to die to give the gift of life. In fact, you don't even have to be a perfect match anymore.

There is a push underway to bring more awareness to something called paired donation to get more living donors signed up to save lives.

Michelle Fulcher wasn't looking for love when she met her soulmate at a business conference 13 years ago.

She says when it's right, you just know.

“I wasn't gonna let a good guy get away,” Fulcher said of her now husband, Tom.

They love to travel and hike. Then Tom started getting easily fatigued, weak and wound up on dialysis.

“You start to lose your strength and get tired. I needed a transplant,” Tom Fulcher said.

He was diagnosed as a child with Polycystic Kidney Disease, a progressive degenerative genetic disease where cysts take over your kidneys, crippling their function.

His mother, brothers, and aunt all have it, and there is no cure.

Michelle and six other friends got tested.

“I wanted to donate at all costs. I was gonna do whatever it took to get my husband a kidney,” Michelle said.

No one was a match.

“We might be compatible in love, but not in blood,” she laughed.

Then, their doctor told them about Paired Donation.

It's been around since 2007 here in Arizona, but not enough people know about it.

You sign up with someone you want to give to but can't. Other pairs do the same. Then a computer algorithm runs the blood types, tissues and antibodies to make the best transplant matches.

“It was the best thing I could have ever done in my life,” Michelle said.

If she could shout it from the rooftops, she would.

“If just more people were aware of it,” Michelle said.

For now, the billboard she’s featured on, near 16th Street and Thomas Road will have to do. It features a larger-than-life smiling Michelle captioned, “I'm a living kidney donor! Save a life.”

“Michelle gave more than her kidney. She gave a piece of her heart,” said Risa Simon, who also happens to be a kidney transplant recipient. “Most people don't even know you can do this while you're living. They think you have to be dead to donate!” 

She helped start the Transplant First Academy to encourage more living donors to give the gift of life.

“We have 100,000 people waiting in the U.S. for a kidney, and there are 35,000 patients added to the list every year,” Simon said.

Thirteen strangers got matched to save each other in Tom and Michelle's paired donation chain, one of the biggest in Arizona.

The Fulchers feel so strongly about paired donation, they started up a kidney transplant network on LinkedIn and already have about 3,000 members from all over America, and 80 different countries around the world.

“It's been an incredible journey and we're gonna continue to spread the word as much as we can and save as many lives as we can,” Michelle said. “I am eternally grateful."

Something she feels compelled to do, because when it's right, you just know.

If you’d like more information on becoming a living donor or paired donation, click/tap here and here.

If you’d like to learn about the Walk for PKD Sunday, October 16th at Kiwanis Park in Tempe, click/tap here.

Copyright 2016 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


Nicole CritesNicole Crites anchors "Good Evening Arizona" weeknights 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on 3TV with Brandon Lee.

Click to learn more about Nicole.

Nicole Crites

The two- time Emmy award winner has been telling stories about Valley newsmakers and trends for more than a decade. Before joining 3TV's "Good Evening Arizona" team, she was the morning news anchor at KPHO-TV in Phoenix.

Nicole loves meeting new people every day and finding ways to bring context to news unfolding in our community and our world.

A wife and mother of two little ones, Nicole is always exploring Arizona to uncover exciting adventures to share. She grew up in a big family, one of six kids in Tucson.

She graduated from the University of Arizona. Work and early internships took her from Manhattan to Spokane, WA, back to Arizona, where she and her high school sweetheart settled to start a family.

Nicole loves to read and keep busy with community service and crafts, like quilting baby blankets, something her mom taught her in elementary school.  

Nicole's passion for storytelling and helping others is why she got into journalism.

She won an Emmy for her field anchoring of the deadly Tucson shooting and assassination attempt of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and another for her KPHO "Keeping the Promise" series on military struggles and success profiles.

She is an active board member for the nonprofit, Military Assistance Mission, supporting our Arizona military, their families and wounded warriors.

She believes everyone has a story and says the most interesting people she has interviewed weren't the actors or politicians who've been guests on the show over the years, but the "ordinary" people you'd never guess have overcome extreme odds and are doing extraordinary things every day

If you have a story you’d like to share with Nicole, click here to email her.

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