University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Paula Kenney McMahon ’73 Marcia Sears Woodall ’73

Gift of life


Departments / Alumni Profiles

Gift of life

Like many college friends, Paula Kenney McMahon and Marcia Sears Woodall first connected over experiences and interests shared. They both majored in physical education, both lived in Simpson Hall as freshmen, both liked to get outside, ski, and compete in sports. Though they didn’t see each other often after graduation, they kept in touch, wrote, and made the occasional phone call. But over the past several years their friendship has deepened through a unique bond—that of organ donor and recipient.

McMahon, who lives in Chatham, Massachusetts, began to have health trouble more than ten years ago when she was diagnosed with Wegener’s Disease, a relatively rare autoimmune illness. Though her only symptom was high blood pressure, the disease would badly damage her kidneys over time. By spring 2005, doctors told her that without a transplant she would need dialysis within a year.

“To an active person, this news was devastating,” McMahon says. “I had been a teacher for twenty-nine years and was an athletic director for more than ten years. It felt as though something had come out of nowhere and robbed me of my health.”

McMahon eventually began dialysis and put her name on the national donor list, sending blood to Massachusetts General Hospital monthly in hopes that a kidney would be found. She knew the wait could be a lengthy one; five years is not uncommon in New England, McMahon says. Her best chance was to find someone who was a blood match and willing to donate a live kidney.

After learning of her friend’s health struggles in a Christmas 2005 holiday letter, Woodall called McMahon from her home in Goshen, New York, and told her she’d like to help. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Woodall admits. “It was a spontaneous response.” Not long after, her own cataract surgery confirmed Woodall’s decision to offer herself as a potential donor. “I knew the miracle of restored life myself. I felt, ‘Yeah, this is what I should be doing.’”

After doctors in New York and Boston tested Woodall and McMahon as a donor/recipient pairing, they found that the friends were compatible right down to the cellular level. Transplant surgery was performed on December 16, 2006, and both of them made a swift and full recovery. McMahon and Woodall have since participated in follow-up research looking at successful live donor pairings.

As one might suspect, the longtime friends have grown closer because of the experience. They’ve visited each other at their respective homes and recently spent a ski weekend at Burke Mountain—just like old times on the ski hills of Vermont. Woodall laughs as she mentions her daughter’s joke that “my mother’s other kidney is coming to visit.”

McMahon is eager to share her story with the motives of giving hope to those in situations similar to her own and encouraging more people to consider making a critical difference in someone’s life through organ donation. With diabetes on the rise, the need for kidney donors is acute and continues to grow.

“Marcia is too special for words, yet I know there are more people like her,” McMahon says. “There is not a day when I do not think of what she did for me.”

For her part, Woodall says she came out of the dual experience of cataract surgery and the kidney donation a better person. “So many good thing happen when you give to other people,” she says. “I’m just glad Paula is doing so well.

Thomas Weaver

Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue.

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