Wendy Shaylor (left) and Denice Ruth
Diseases & Conditions

Retired Prison Employee’s Donation Frees Woman From Kidney Transplant List

By on 04/24/2019

Wendy Shaylor finds it amusing to say that she and her husband met in prison. And it’s true.  He was a corrections officer at Graterford Prison and she was assistant to the superintendent for 32 years. Both retired last year “to spend the rest of our lives together.”  

After a few months of pleasant, low-key retirement – going to the gym, attending local festivals, gardening, traveling, enjoying each other’s company – Wendy Shaylor made an extraordinary decision that would free a stranger from a different kind of prison.

She donated her kidney to someone she’d never met, someone whose life was confined by debilitating chronic illness. Shaylor is recovering now from the March 1 surgery at Einstein Healthcare Network, and is feeling fine.

Shaylors’ explanation for the extraordinary gesture belies its magnitude: “I like helping people,” she said, as if she’d dropped off canned goods at a homeless shelter rather than subjected herself to surgery and relinquished an organ – she, who spent years being terrified of needles.

Shaylor had given some thought to donating an organ ever since her niece was diagnosed with leukemia five years ago and she felt guilty that she wasn’t a bone marrow match. Then, last spring, she saw a Facebook post from a 9-year-old boy that said: MY MOM NEEDS A KIDNEY DONOR TO LIVE. PLEASE BE HER LIVING DONOR.

The boy was Denice Ruth’s son, Jo-Jo. By the time Shaylor saw the post, Ruth was in end-stage kidney failure with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disease inherited from her father. She’d been forced to leave her career as an elementary school teacher in the Kutztown district because of soaring blood pressure and debilitating fatigue caused by the disease.

“I’d get off a chair, go and do something, then collapse and fall asleep,” said Ruth. Her own father died at the age of 51. She was haunted last year by the fact that she had turned 51.

A number of friends and family had volunteered to donate a kidney – including Ruth’s husband;  a high school friend; a neighbor; and other family members. But no one was a match. Ruth had become one of the more than 100,000 patients in the United States on a waiting list for an organ. Would she be among the 13 people who die every day while waiting?

Ruth’s husband, Joseph, is very active on Facebook. When he posted the appeal for a kidney, “we got 3,000 likes,” Ruth said. One of the people who reposted it was Melissa Smith, who worked with Ruth at Kutztown – and whose daughter was a friend of Shaylor’s stepdaughter. Shaylor was browsing her Facebook account one morning when she saw Smith’s post.   

“As soon as I saw it, I realized it could be my opportunity to do something important,” she said. She consulted with her husband and called Einstein.  What followed were near-weekly trips from Reading, where she lives, to Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.

 At the hospital, she was examined and questioned and tested – and repeatedly advised that she could back out whenever she wanted. “I never gave it a thought,” she said.

Shaylor was offered the opportunity to meet Ruth and “I wasn’t sure.  I didn’t want her to feel any kind of obligation, but then I realized I might regret it down the road.”

She and Ruth and their husbands met for the first time in a consulting room in Einstein’s transplant department.  “I didn’t know what to say to her,“ Ruth said.  “I just didn’t have words.  Joe was the same way; he started crying,” Ruth recalls, her voice atremble. “I was in awe of what she’d do for a complete stranger.”

The operation was “a piece of cake,” said Shaylor, who’d never had surgery before.

Ruth said her experience was dramatic: she recovered her strength almost immediately after the transplant. “When everything wore off, all of my energy came back,” she said. “It was almost immediate. I didn’t really realize how bad I was until then.”

Shaylor and Ruth visited a couple of times in the hospital, and have stayed in touch by text message since they were discharged. Ruth has already taken her son, Jo-Jo, fishing and is planning to make up for lost time with him.

When the couples met, they discovered one of the things they had in common was the criminal justice system: the Shaylors worked at Graterford and Ruth’s husband is a Pennsylvania parole agent. They know one or two people in common.

And now, thanks to Shaylor, Denice Ruth has been released from the prison of debilitating illness. “I feel great,” she said.  

Shaylor is gratified, but, like most kidney donors, shrugs off suggestions that she did something heroic. “It’s really not that difficult,” she said. “If you can help somebody in any way, it’s something to consider.”

Watch an interview with Shaylor and Ruth on WPVI TV, Channel 6.

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