It’s incredibly rare to undergo an organ transplant. It’s almost unheard of for a husband and wife to have both received the gift of donation.
Yet, Fred Kolkhorst and Nancy Marlin have that special distinction. Each received an organ transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital within 18 months of one another — a heart for him, a kidney for her.
Now, Kolkhorst and Marlin hope their extraordinary story will raise awareness of organ donation and ultimately save more lives.
“This second chance at life, it changes you immensely in ways that are difficult to describe,” says Kolkhorst, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University’s (SDSU) School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. “I realize how fortunate we are.”
Kolkhorst was hospitalized at Sharp Memorial for more than three months in 2017 before receiving a new heart from a 20-year-old donor. Two decades earlier, the exercise physiologist had begun to notice his endurance for physical activity weaken. He was eventually diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a progressive disease that affects the heart’s ability to pump as well as it should.
During that time, Marlin’s health was also in decline. The psychology professor and past provost at SDSU had polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder that causes the kidneys to lose function over time. Her mother died of the condition, and she’s lost other family members to complications from the disease.
About a year after her husband’s heart transplant, Marlin’s kidney function dropped dangerously low, causing her debilitating fatigue. Knowing that Kolkhorst could not donate a kidney to his wife, a close friend of Marlin’s stepped up in December 2018 to donate one of hers.
“They call it the gift of life, and that’s what it is,” says Marlin, whose donor wishes to remain anonymous. “She truly gave me life through her generosity.”
And this generosity, the couple says, propels them to continue raising awareness of organ donation, especially knowing that more than 114,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a new organ. After his transplant, for example, Kolkhorst donated his heart to an SDSU lab that studies heart failure, and he continues to teach about the physiology of the disease. At the end of each lecture, he says he always encourages students to sign up as organ donors.
“Every day is a gift,” Kolkhorst says. “It’s beyond words.”
To register as an organ donor, sign up with Donate Life America and select “yes” to organ donation when you apply for or renew your driver’s license.