Needing a transplant during COVID-19, UI law student receives lifesaving kidney from his mother

When Gina Maas learned that her son Austin, a law student at the University of Iowa, was facing kidney failure, she overcame obstacles few of us could ever imagine on the way to giving her son the lifesaving gift he needed: her kidney.

Gina, of Portland, Oregon, is a registered nurse who works at a dialysis clinic. She understands that her plan—to travel 1,900 miles in the middle of a worldwide pandemic to donate her kidney to her son—could not have succeeded without the expert work of Ciara Gibbs, RN, BSN, living kidney donor coordinator in the UI Organ Transplant Center.

Throughout Gina’s remarkable journey, Gibbs coordinated all of the care and testing Gina needed in Portland as she prepared for the transplant in Iowa City.

“I wondered how I was going to do this, living in another state,” Gina says. “It was seamless. Ciara coordinated everything. It couldn’t have been easier.”

Austin and Gina Maas
Gina wouldn’t let the pandemic or her blood sugar levels stand in the way of donating a kidney to her son, Austin.

‘I’ll give you one. I don’t need two.’

Gina was at work the day that Austin called her from UI Hospitals & Clinics to tell her that the headaches and high blood pressure he’d been dealing with lately were signs of kidney failure. He needed a transplant.

“I’ll never forget that day and that call,” Gina says. “The minute he told me he needed a kidney, I said, ‘I’ll give you one. I don’t need two.’ It was my son. I didn’t have a second thought.”

Gina immediately began the process to determine if she was a match for Austin. Gibbs set up a blood test for her, but the test revealed that Gina’s blood sugar level put her at risk of developing diabetes, which ruled her out as a donor.

Undaunted, Gina cut all added sugars from her diet for the next three months. Then she asked Gibbs to schedule another blood test.

This time, the results showed that the blood sugar levels were lower. She had cleared the first hurdle and could move forward to the testing required to determine if she was a match and healthy enough to donate.

Gibbs contacted a Portland transplant center and scheduled a day of X-rays, scans, and blood tests for Gina. On April 8, 2020, Gina got the news: She was a match and could donate her kidney to her son.

Gina flew to Iowa City on June 29 to quarantine before surgery. Ten days later, on July 9, UI transplant surgeon David Axelrod, MD, performed the surgery that provided Austin with his mother’s kidney and a new chance at a healthy life.

Gina needed only two nights in the hospital after the minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure. She stayed in Iowa City for two more weeks until her first follow-up appointment. Since then, her care team in the UI Organ Transplant Center has used telehealth video visits to conduct follow-up visits to monitor her recovery at home in Portland, a process that will continue until two years after the procedure.

Expert, compassionate care for transplant patients during COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States in the early months of 2020, transplants were among the surgeries that were put on hold.

"The only surgeries allowed were for life-threatening cases. We successfully argued that living donor transplants qualify. There’s very good data that shows getting a transplant is safer than delaying it, even with the issues with the pandemic."

The UI Organ Transplant Center—Iowa’s only multi-organ transplant center, with outcomes well above the national averages—performed 108 transplants in 2020. Throughout the pandemic, the team advocated for patients like Austin and others whose lives depend on transplants.

As Austin’s recovery continues, Gina says she is back to feeling 100% again. They’re both grateful for the care and support that made all the difference in their experience.

“It was amazing,” Gina says. “No stress, no worry. UI Health Care made the entire process so easy. When I finally got to meet Ciara for the first time, I cried. I finally got to put a face with the voice I’d heard for so long.”

Portland, Oregon