Penn Hills woman donates kidney to Brooklyn stranger

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, July 4, 2009

For Nancy Murrell, it was "a big nothing."

For Anthony Cottman, it was everything. It might have saved his life.

Murrell, 47, of Penn Hills donated a kidney to Cottman, a Brooklyn man she did not know. He'd never even heard of her until she agreed to let doctors slice her open to save a stranger's life.

The surgery, June 25 at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, was a success, Murrell and Cottman said. Both are recovering quickly.

"I feel a little stiff, and that's all," Murrell said shortly after the procedure. "I was out of the hospital on Friday (June 26) and shopping in SoHo on Saturday. This was a big nothing, medically.

"And I saved a man's life."

Cottman has shown huge improvements.

After the transplant, he said he spent a sleepless night in his bed, just grinning over his good fortune.

"So far, so good," he said, shortly after a follow-up appointment with doctors last week. "I'm great. I'm fantastic. I feel really good."

Cottman, who worked in the fashion industry before he fell ill with anemia in 2004, suffered through 12 hours of dialysis a week. Now he looks forward to a life free of debilitating medical problems.

"I went to see Anthony (the following morning), and I couldn't believe the difference," Murrell said in an e-mail interview from New York. "I mean, the man just had major surgery, and yet he looked so much better than the previous day. His skin was smoother. The lines in his face had nearly disappeared. His eyes were clearer.

"It is still hard to wrap my mind around what I did, that I opened my body to another person so that he could have a piece of it and live," she added. "I'm a little incredulous. But I know that's what happened."

Murrell decided to donate her kidney after hearing an interview with Chaya Lipschutz of Brooklyn on National Public Radio.

Lipschutz donated a kidney in 2005 to a stranger after reading an advertisement in a weekly paper. She acts as a liaison between donors and recipients, and she led Murrell to Cottman.

As it turns out, Cottman could not have found a better donor.

Doctors handling the transplant were amazed by Murrell's big and "beautiful" kidneys — "which is one of the most unusual compliments I've ever received," Murrell said. "They also said my kidneys were about half again as large as most women's kidneys, which was a nice coincidence."

Generous acts like Murrell's are becoming more common in the United States.

In 2008, 106 people donated kidneys anonymously to people they didn't know, up from two in 1998, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, the national organ allocation clearinghouse. And more people are donating kidneys to specific people they're not related to, according to the network. Last year 1,250 people donated kidneys to specific unrelated recipients, up from 361 a decade earlier.

Murrell is hoping her story will inspire others to donate.

"The experience has been amazing," she said. "I've gotten so much out of it as a person, and I gave a good man his life back. I am proud of myself for deciding that it was what I wanted to do and following through.

"I feel ... pleased, contented, happy. I feel like the universe said, 'Could you?' and I said, 'Of course.' "

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