Top Story of 2012: Marcus Thomas Staffer Becomes Kidney Donor For Coworker

Cleveland Heights resident Jim Sollisch was one of 11 people who offered to donate a kidney to Marcus Thomas partner and chief idea officer Joanne Kim.

Editor's Note: Cleveland Heights Patch's No.1 story of 2012 was published on July 30. 

Joanne Kim tried to talk him out of it.

What if Jim can’t play basketball after donating his kidney? What if one of his kids needs one?

And Jim Sollisch is not Kim’s husband. He’s not her brother or her cousin. Sollisch is Kim’s coworker.

Technically, Kim is his boss.

Some people cringe at the thought of chipping in $5 for their boss's holiday gift. Sollisch happily gave a vital organ.

While Kim and Sollisch talked about the experience on a patio outside of Marcus Thomas, the Cleveland-area advertising agency where they both work, they weren’t holding hands to comfort each other or crying. They laughed, bantered and cracked jokes.

“I felt I was able to do something helpful,” said Sollisch, a Cleveland Heights resident and Heights High grad.

Kim laughed. “Helpful? He basically saved my life.”

Not a “needle in a haystack”

Eleven people offered to give up one of their kidneys for Kim. And 10 were matches.

“It’s not a needle in a haystack. If you want to do this for someone, the chances are much greater that you can do it than you might have thought,” said Sollisch, 54, an associate partner and creative director at Marcus Thomas. “It also means you shouldn’t say you’re going to do it if you are just playing the odds.  Like, oh well I’ll offer to do it because the chances are slim, so I’ll look good and I won’t have to do it.”

Kim’s boisterous laugh at this explanation was contagious.

But matches don’t automatically become potential donors. Doctors knew some weren’t healthy enough to give. And those they thought could be fit for the task had to first undergo two days of testing, spending about seven hours each day in the hospital. Doctors collected their urine for 24 hours and monitored their blood pressure. Social workers talked to the potential donors to make sure they were ready mentally and emotionally, too.

The donor has to be healthy enough to lose an organ and understand the risks.

“Jimmy was the third person to go through testing. My niece went first because she was the highest match, but she didn’t pass the two days of testing,” said Kim, 47, who lives in Peninsula and is a partner and chief idea officer at the agency. “My husband (Jim Nash, also a partner at Marcus Thomas), who is phenomenally healthy went through the two days of testing … but they didn’t let him pass.”

That’s when Sollisch, who was one of two coworkers to offer their organs, jumped in.

His wife, Rique, had a few valid questions. What if one of their kids needed a kidney someday?

“At that point I was just really eager to do it. I felt like I had a really good chance to pass the test. I’ve just always been in perfect health. I’ve never taken a pill in my life. I have low blood pressure naturally, and well I exercise a lot,” Sollisch said. “So after her niece got rejected and after she got sick again, I went to her office and I said look, just get me next in line.”

He was right. Doctors, who include nephrologists and urologists, determined that Sollisch’s kidney would be the best for Kim. And they explained that by the time someone in his family found out they had kidney diesease and needed a transplant, he'd be too old to donate. He could also still play basketball and other sports.

“Once that happened, I got really excited," Sollisch said. "But you do take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow, I hope all of those things I was thinking were true, and this is really no big deal.’”

Waiting to fail

Kim’s kidney function was at just 7 percent right before surgery.

It was down to 20 percent in January 2011, when her doctor gave her the green light to start looking for potential donors.

But Kim has known her kidney would likely fail since she was 25 years old and found out she had IgA nephropathy, an immune disease of the kidney in which a protein that helps the organ fight off disease settles in the kidney.

She just had to wait until it got bad enough.

She started slowing down at work in 2010 and made sure she got eight to 10 hours of sleep, a luxury for her.

“I read a really interesting article about kidney disease, and the article was titled ‘The Slow Death,’ because that’s what it is. It’s not like cancer where there’s a lot of pain. Your body just starts to shut down very gradually,” Kim said. “You have to wait until function goes below 20 percent, so we had to wait. We couldn’t actually do anything. We couldn’t get people tested. So it was a little bit frustrating … you see you’re slowing down but yet you can’t do anything about it.”

Sollisch found out he was a match in June 2011, but waited until Kim’s niece, who lives in Oregon, went through those two-day tests. Then they had to wait for the results.

“We just wanted what was best for Joanne. I thought a 31-year-old kidney from a woman who is a relative sounds pretty good. We were kind of rooting for her,” Sollisch said.

It wasn’t until September 2011 that Kim’s niece was rejected. Then Kim got sick from another health issue and needed a blood transfusion.

That’s when Sollisch asked to go through the two-day testing.

Among kidney donors, the percentage of living, unrelated donors is actually increasing, said Kim's surgeon, Dr. David Goldfarb, surgical director of the Renal Transplantation Program at the Cleveland Clinic.

He said that according to United Network of Organ Sharing, out of about 90,000 people waiting for kidney donations in 2011, only about 5,700 received donations from people who were alive. About 11,000 received kidneys from people who had died. That means only about 17,000 people out of 90,000 who needed a kidney got one.

"So you can see there's this huge disparity," Goldfarb said.

Surgery has improved over the years. The rate of minor complications is about 6 percent, he said, and major complications are "pretty uncommon." A big incision isn't necessary — doctors can now use a few small holes to remove the organ. 

The results

The surgery was Leap Day, Feb. 29, 2012.

Afterward, Sollisch walked about a half-mile around the Cleveland Clinic to find Kim. He said he was exhausted and should have just used a wheelchair.

But both were determined to defy the odds. Or just beat the competition.

Sollisch went back to work after 10 days, he said, joking that it was much sooner than his friend Paul, who also donated a kidney and inspired Sollisch to do the same.

“I don’t think the doctors recommend 10 days,” Kim said, chuckling.

She has no room to talk, though. She was supposed to take three months off and went back to work after six weeks. Normally organ recipients recuperate in the hospital for eight days, but she left after four.

Their coworkers from Marcus Thomas delivered homemade dinners for each of them for weeks after surgery.

Both Kim and Sollisch are in good health — Kim’s kidney is working at about 40 percent, and Sollisch’s is at 60 percent.

The only change for Sollisch is that he has to drink more water and can’t take ibuprofen. Doctors also may have to adjust future medications so they don’t pass through the kidney.

Kim will have to have her blood drawn about twice a month for the rest of her life to monitor her kidney.

But what’s really different for Kim isn’t a health risk — she told her doctor that after the surgery, she had a sweet tooth, and asked what could cause that.

The doctor told her to ask her donor.

“I don’t eat sweets after lunch or in the office, but you should see me after dinner,” Sollisch said.

Kim and Sollisch have been close since Ira Thomas and Marcus Advertising merged 12 years ago and they started working together. Both had worked for their respective companies for more than 20 years. They get together for dinner parties and see each other nearly every day when they're not traveling.

But now the bond between them is even stronger.

“We feel more like siblings now,” Kim said. “My brother was also a match, but (he) is not in the best of health … My brother said to me after the surgery, ‘Will you please tell Jim thank you for doing what I couldn’t do?’”


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