Candy Candler went the extra mile to demonstrate a lesson in selflessness to her third-grade students. She donated her kidney to a stranger.
It was the first altruistic kidney transplant surgery performed by Drs. Todd Merchen and Jason Rolls at Georgia Regents Medical Center. With most kidney donations, the donor selects the recipient such as a relative, close friend or acquaintance. But Candler’s donation was different; she had no idea who would be getting her kidney.
“My daddy always told me that I couldn’t save the whole world, but I told him I can – one life at a time,” said the Thomson Elementary School teacher, who begins her 17th year of teaching this month.
While working on an assignment about New Year’s resolutions this past January, Candler encouraged her students to be more selfless in 2015 and pledged to do the same.
A short time later, one of her young pupils asked for prayer for her grandmother who was in dire need of a kidney transplant. The girl also shared an information card with Candler about transplantation that got her thinking.
“I’m an organ donor, but that really only helps others after I die,” 38-year-old Candler said.
The school’s 2010 Teacher of the Year did a little homework and found out that she could save a life much sooner by donating one of her kidneys now.
“I felt like this was what God wanted me to do,” said the wife and mother of two. “I realized part of it would be hard for me, but I wanted to set a good example for not only my schoolchildren, but for my own children. I realized that I could give someone the gift of life today.”
So Candler started the process of blood work and testing in the hopes of donating a kidney to her student’s grandmother. But before she finished the process, the grandmother found a donor.
To the surprise of her family and friends, Candler decided to go ahead and offer her kidney for someone else in need.
“We don’t know if we’ll have tomorrow or not,” she said. “I just know that this was what I was supposed to do.”
That “someone else in need” turned out to be another educator, 74-year-old Sharon Dole, a professor at Western Carolina University near Asheville, North Carolina.
In October 2014, Dole’s daughter Jennifer Tinsley of North Augusta was being evaluated to donate.
“My mom has given to me all of my life, so I wanted to give something to her,” 45-year-old Tinsley said.
The tests, however, revealed that the mother and daughter were incompatible.
“I was very disappointed,” Tinsley said. “I live a very healthy lifestyle, so it was difficult to understand why I couldn’t be her donor.”
Dole joined about 102,000 people nationwide on the kidney transplant waiting list with the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, and the 5,500 across Georgia-Carolina who need a kidney.
Fortunately, her wait lasted just a few months.
While Dole was doing some teaching in Jamaica in the spring, her daughter got the phone call that a donor had been located for her.
“When I found out she would be getting a donor kidney, I was so relieved,” Tinsley said.
On July 8, with her husband Chuck at her side, Candler checked into the medical center. While she was waiting to be taken to the operating room for surgery, she heard a family in an adjacent room talking excitedly about how their mother was finally getting a kidney that day.
“I said to my husband, ‘I think that’s my recipient. I want to meet that person,” Candler recalled. “We had signed the paperwork stating that we wanted to meet, and the other family had done the same thing.”
The two special education instructors met for the first time that morning.
“From that moment, if my family wasn’t in my room, they were in Candy’s,” Dole said. “We were just like one big family. Of course, now we’re connected for life.”
Dole said she can’t say enough good things about Candler.
“She’s just a wonderful person,” she said. “She gave me the best gift of all; she gave me the gift of life.”
Candler has become a literal example of what it means to give of yourself – and it’s a lesson that is sure to motivate her students for years to come.
Some have told Tinsley that since she couldn’t give a kidney to her mom she doesn’t have to donate now. But this wife and mother of four said that would almost be like denying someone else.
“I feel like now I should give too,” she said. “You know, pay it forward.”
To find out more about kidney donation, contact the Georgia Regents Medical Center transplant offices at 706-721-2888 or visit unos.org.