Pasadena resident donates kidney to fellow dog rescue volunteer

Gary Simmont, of Pasadena, hugs one of his rescued dogs, a German Shepherd named Samson. In March, Simmont donated a kidney to a fellow dog rescue volunteer named Laurel Weetall, of Germantown.
Gary Simmont, of Pasadena, hugs one of his rescued dogs, a German Shepherd named Samson. In March, Simmont donated a kidney to a fellow dog rescue volunteer named Laurel Weetall, of Germantown. (Atalie Payne / Correspondent)

A life-saving encounter between Pasadena resident Gary Simmont and Laurel Weetall, of Germantown, occurred at All Shepherd Rescue in Perry Hall several years ago.

In this case, the life saved from this chance meeting wasn't canine, it was human.


As dedicated volunteers with the same dog rescue groups, Simmont and Weetall travelled in similar circles, but were acquaintances at best.

Weetall said of Simmont, "we always got along. He's a really nice person who is constantly fostering special needs dogs."


Before long, the two animal lovers connected on Facebook which is how Simmont discovered Weetall had a debilitating kidney disorder called polycystic kidney disease. In a Facebook post, Weetall shared an article about the painful medical condition which causes fluid-filled cysts to form on the kidneys reducing organ function. The cysts also rupture, resulting in excruciating pain, says Weetall.

She was diagnosed with the inherited disorder 13 years ago after experiencing pain and bleeding.

Weetall utilizes Facebook to share information about her disorder to educate others.

"I'm all about promoting awareness," she said.

After reading Weetall's posts about her medical condition and how to become a living donor, Simmont says he began researching the kidney donation process. Prior to Weetall's posts on social media, he had never heard of living kidney donations.

He discovered surgery and recovery from living kidney donation was a "bump in the road" for the donor and utterly life-saving for the recipient. Furthermore, the half-life of a kidney donated by a living donor is significantly longer than one from a cadaver.

Simmont says he was influenced to help others and "give back" by the 35 years he has spent in recovery from alcoholism. His recovery has been the "greatest gift" of his life, he said, without recovery life could have been drastically different, if not at all.

After typing a message to Weetall about his decision to proceed with medical testing necessary to discover if they were compatible, Simmont spent more than an hour contemplating his proposal.

"I thought long and hard about pressing send," he said; knowing he wouldn't rescind his offer once the message was sent. Then, he pressed send.

At first, Weetall thought Simmont wasn't serious about being a donor. She barely knew him. Once he began testing for compatibility, she knew he was sincere.

A few loved ones were opposed to the idea of his kidney donation. Despite their concern, Simmont knew the risks were minimal.

In November 2017, Simmont began the compatibility process of kidney donation by filling out a questionnaire online with MedStar Georgetown Transplantation Institute (MGTI), where the surgery would take place.


Soon after, he visited MGTI to undergo medical tests to determine whether he and Weetall were compatible. They have the same blood and tissue type, making the surgery possible. Simmont also spoke to a psychologist about his decision to donate an organ.

During the process, potential donors are assigned an advocate team whose job it is to determine if they are healthy enough for donation. The team knows nothing about the recipient and is solely invested in the donor's long-term health.

Following the battery of tests, Simmont said he called Weetall, asking, "do you want the left kidney or the right?" Knowing the surgery was imminent, Weetall danced with joy.

After waiting for the insurance company to file paperwork, the surgery date was set for March 13.

Simmont says when he arrived at the hospital the morning of the surgery, Weetall's father greeted him with a heart-felt handshake and said "you must be some kind of saint, you're saving my little girl's life."

Dr. Matthew Cooper, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at MGTI, removed Weetall's enlarged kidneys, replacing them with one of Simmont's healthy kidneys.

Kidney and pancreas transplantation specialist Dr. Jennifer Verbesey performed Simmont's kidney removal. The surgeries were successful. Simmont spent about two days in the hospital and Weetall was released in four.

Simmont says the notion recovery for kidney donors is worse than for the recipient is wrong. His recovery took days. Weetall's took a couple of months.

The donor's surgery is minimally invasive, Cooper said.

"The donor is able to recover much more quickly," he said. The only restriction immediately following surgery is heavy lifting. Following transplantation, donors and recipients have on-going check-ups with their doctor.

"It's the same life they lived before the donation, they're able to look back and think, 'I really saved someone's life,'" Cooper said.

Aside from minor abdominal discomfort for about two weeks, Simmont hasn't noticed any residual side effects from surgery. He has a small scar near his belly button and two others on the left side of his abdomen.

As owner of Body by Simmont in Pasadena, he returned to work a few days after his surgery.

Only 20 percent of potential candidates are able to undergo living donation surgery because donors must be "very healthy," Cooper said.

Cooper said roughly 100,000 people are on the kidney transplant waitlist.

“We have a significant supply and demand problem,” he said.

About 24 people die every day waiting for a kidney.

Weetall knows someone waiting for a kidney. She encourages others to donate, "do it, be the hero, make a difference."

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