Hermelinda “Mhely” Gutierrez was in bad shape in late 2001.
The Bridgeview mother of two was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease earlier that year and had been on dialysis for six months.
She was anemic, had high blood pressure and was very depressed, according to her husband, Juan Gutierrez.
Mhely had been on three different hospital waiting lists for a new kidney for the previous seven months and was starting to lose hope.
“My kids [now ages 20 and 23] were little at the time, and they needed her more than ever,” Juan Gutierrez said in a recent interview.
That’s when they got the call from Dr. Susan Hou, a nephrologist at Loyola University Medical Center, who brought the Gutierrez’s in for what they thought was a routine visit. “Dr. Susan” had been doing blood work for Mhely at the time,” Juan Gutierrez said.
“[Dr. Hou] said, ‘How would you feel if I gave you one of my kidneys?'” Juan Gutierrez remembered. “My wife just started crying. We weren’t expecting this from Dr. Susan. Something divine came down and said, ‘Dr. Susan is going to be the one to give the kidney for your wife.'”
The story made national headlines and sparked a conversation within the medical community about the ethics of doctors donating organs to their own patients.
Hou was later dubbed one of the “Seven Sisters of Loyola” – actually, the kidney transplant specialist and River Forest resident, was the first of the seven by about eight years – for donating to a patient in need.
Exactly 12 years later, Hou would find herself in a similar position of needing an organ transplant, but hers was a lung that needed replacing. She now holds the distinction of being the only transplant physician in known history to have both donated and received an organ transplant.
In 2009, Hou was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease known as pulmonary fibrosis, which causes scarring of the lungs and results in shortness of breath. She ultimately had to rely on supplemental oxygen to breathe.
Like Mhely Gutierrez, she was placed on a long waiting list for a transplant. Hou’s small build and incompatible blood type increased the odds that she would not find an appropriate donor organ, according to Jim Ritter, a Loyola spokesman.
Ritter said in a news release that Hou remained on the waiting list for more than two years – by fall of 2014, she was not expected to survive through the end of the year.
But a matching lung was eventually found and Hou, then 68 years old, underwent the surgery on Oct. 10.
She told Wednesday Journal in a recent interview that her size and blood type were not the only hurdles to overcome for her lung transplant.
“I have antibodies that would reject 95 percent of the lungs that would come along,” she said. “That was sort of the biggest barrier.
Having worked as a nephrologist since 1980, Hou said she’s seen a lot of donated organs over the last few decades. She believes some people have it in their DNA to want to donate an organ – others have to learn why it’s important.
“I call it the donor chip,” she said.
She said that’s why she’s alright with the praise she’s received for donating her kidney and now being recognized as the first donor doctor to both give and receive an organ.
“I don’t understand why I got an award for not dying,” she joked, acknowledging that the public accolades get the word out about organ transplants and helps “makes people interested in donating.”
“Sometimes the ‘donor chip’ has to be activated and sometimes hearing about something like this will do it,” she said.