When Dawn Odenthal sat down for a meeting with her colleague Jolinda Conzemius in June 2014, organ donation was nowhere on her radar. The two women knew one another through their work at a company that specializes in school photography, yearbooks, church directories and other forms of memory preservation. Dawn is a regional sales director, and Jolinda is a photographer. They were meeting to talk about a project they had been assigned to work on together.
By the time they got up from the table that afternoon, however, they had started a process that would culminate in Dawn donating one of her kidneys to Jolinda for a life-altering kidney transplant at Mayo Clinic.
“I absolutely wanted to do this for her,” says Dawn. “There wasn’t a question in my mind.”
Part of the reason Dawn could be so definitive in her decision to donate a kidney to Jolinda was that she had already spent a good deal of time thinking about living-donor organ transplants.
Eight years ago, a member of Dawn’s family was in need of a kidney transplant. At that time, Dawn and her husband discussed in detail the possibility of organ donation. They agreed it would be an excellent way to help, and Dawn started the donor evaluation process. Unfortunately, her loved one’s health deteriorated rapidly, and a transplant was no longer feasible. But the experience galvanized Dawn’s resolve to help someone else through organ donation, if she could.
“I decided at that time if the situation ever presented itself again where someone needed a kidney, I would step forward, and I would do it,” Dawn says. “I wanted to help God save someone else’s sister or brother or mother, and give that gift to another family.”
Dawn learned of Jolinda’s need for a kidney as they were wrapping up their meeting. Jolinda mentioned there could be a delay in the project because she was dealing with serious health problems. Concerned, Dawn asked about her health and learned Jolinda had polycystic kidney disease — a disorder in which clusters of cysts develop within the kidneys. Jolinda’s case was so severe the cysts were interfering with her kidneys’ ability to function properly. Without a transplant, she would need to start dialysis.
“She told me she already had approximately 30 people tested as possible donors without finding a match,” recalls Dawn. “I looked at her and said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll be your donor.’ I didn’t need to discuss it with my husband. We had that conversation years ago. I knew he would support my decision.”
As they talked, Dawn double-checked her blood type. It was A positive, the same as Jolinda’s. They called Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus, where Jolinda had been receiving care, and Dawn was connected to a staff member in the Transplant Center.
“I did the phone interview for potential donors while we were sitting there at the table, within 15 minutes of the time she told me she was ill,” Dawn says. “Then from that point to the surgery date was exactly six weeks. It happened very quickly. Honestly, there just wasn’t a doubt in my mind. God had us in his hands, and away we went.”
As Dawn went through the comprehensive evaluation at Mayo Clinic that’s required to become a living kidney donor, she was impressed with the seamless process.
“From the nurses and doctors to all the rest of the staff, everyone at Mayo Clinic was great,” she says. “They walked me step-by-step through the process, and everything was clear. They did a great job, marching me through from beginning to end, so I knew what each test was, why they were doing it and what it meant.”
The evaluation results showed what Dawn had been confident about all along. Her kidney was an excellent match for Jolinda. They scheduled the transplant surgery for July 24.
“I was excited. Knowing I was going into such an awesome situation to help another human being was so cool,” Dawn says.
After the transplant procedure was complete, Dawn had to stay in the hospital for two days. Her recovery after that was smooth, with no complications.
“I had surgery on Thursday and left the hospital on Saturday. I came home on Sunday, and I walked a mile on Monday. It was slow, but I did it,” she says. “Everything went very well. My one remaining kidney is doing great. The only change I’ve made is that I drink a little more water than I did before. That’s it.”
Dawn's gift, of course, meant everything to Jolinda. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I'm still in awe,” she says. “I felt like I had a front row ticket to watch God perform a miracle through Dawn.”
Dawn’s experience as an organ donor has motivated her to reach out to others who are interested in doing the same. She wants to help raise awareness about the need for organ donation, as well as dispel myths about the process. To that end, she and Jolinda have become organ donation advocates.
“We’ve found many people don’t realize that to donate, you don’t need to be related, you don’t need to be the same ethnicity, you don’t need to be the same sex or religion,” she explains. “Sometimes people seem to think, ‘I don’t look like you, so I can’t help you.’ But that’s not true. We’re trying to get some of those misconceptions out of the way to help others.”
The two give presentations about their transplant experience to organizations and groups in and around their hometowns of Eagan and New Prague, Minnesota. They meet one-on-one with prospective donors and potential recipients to share their stories, answer questions and offer support. They also help spread the word via social media and local newspapers about people looking for a kidney donation.
“What we’re doing is small right now. So far we’ve helped three people find kidney donors,” says Dawn. “We’d love to do more. As much as possible we want to get the word out, help match people up and raise awareness about the need for organ donation. It is so important. It’s a gift worth sharing.”
Becoming a living organ donor is a wonderful act of generosity and courage, giving hope to people waiting for a kidney or liver transplant. Learn more about living organ donation by visiting the transplant page on Mayo Clinic Connect and clicking on the Living Donor Toolkit. Mayo Clinic Connect is a welcoming online community where you can share your experiences, ask questions and find support.