The kindness of strangers

It all started with a newspaper article, one of those heartstrings-tugging profiles about an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. In this case it was a woman by the name of Nicole Hruska who had donated a kidney to a complete stranger through the Web site matchingdonors. com.

Most people react to such stories the same way. It’s an incredible story, but I could never do something like that.

Annie Ross Long ’84, apparently, isn’t most people.

“I thought, what an awesome thing to be able to do!” said Long. “I’d always thought you had to be related for it to be successful.”

So, deciding this was something she wanted to do, Long spoke with her husband, Rick Long ’82, who was unsurprised.

“We had talked before about what an amazing gift that was,” she said.

Long briefly considered an altruistic donation—a donation without knowing the recipient—but decided she wanted to take the journey with them, and to know it was someone who had a decent chance of working out.

Eventually she narrowed it down by blood type (“type O” recipients can only receive from “type O” donors, which she was) and, eventually, by family situation.

She chose Chris Binns-Smith, a Californian who had two boys in their teens. Chris’ wife, Sylvia, had also been diagnosed with unrelated cases of breast and colon cancer during the time that Chris’ kidneys had failed, so Long hoped to bring some stability to the family.

Her first conversation with Binns-Smith lasted over an hour and a half and was, in Long’s words, “pretty amazing.”

It wasn’t a phone call that Binns-Smith had expected. He had been on the registry for three years. He had had other calls, but most of them were seeking green cards or large sums of cash. It had been so long, that Binns-Smith and his wife had basically made peace with his mortality. They had given up planning their lives. Until Long came along.

This was in March 2008. The following April and July Long made a pair of visits to California to ascertain her health, both mentally and physically.

“I got a pretty thorough workup. At least I know I’m healthy!” said Long.

After passing the battery of tests, the surgery was scheduled for Aug. 15. Binns-Smith’s insurance company flew her out a few days before the surgery, and her family—including her husband, two children, and her mother—made the most of the trip to San Francisco, doing “the typical tourist stuff.” They also had dinner with Binns-Smith’s family.

The surgery went smoothly. By the next day Long was up and walking around, practically pain free.

Binns-Smith seemed to fair just as well. His appetite came back to the point that he was actually enjoying the hospital food. He gained weight and his symptoms seemed to go away almost immediately.

“It was just remarkable,” said Long.

But not all remarkable stories end well. Only a few months after the surgery Binns-Smith developed sepsis, a blood infection and died on Oct. 10. While the final autopsy is still pending, doctors feared some of his anti-rejection medication may have masked the fever that could have alerted them to the condition.

“It’s a really sad ending,” said Long. “Because it’s not a common ending. Chris was doing everything he was supposed to do.”

Binns-Smith’s wife, Sylvia, took it hard, said Long. But, Sylvia was sure to point out, those last few months were such a gift to them, to have him feeling better and living his life. Even if it was for just a short time.

Long, for her part, has no regrets. She said that if anyone was considering the same option, she would be happy to talk with them.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Long. “It was an amazing experience for everyone, a pretty extraordinary experience.”