Woman with rare Nutcracker Syndrome donates kidney to stranger in need on Long Island

NEW HYDE PARK, Long Island -- Just in time for Christmas, a woman who suffered from a rare disorder called Nutcracker Syndrome and donated her kidney to a complete stranger on Wednesday reunited with the recipient and the doctors who performed the surgeries.

For 47-year-old Heather Lucas, of Shelton, Connecticut, the ability to celebrate this Christmas without pain is nothing short of a miracle. Her story began in 2018 when discomfort in her left side grew debilitating.

For months, she sought relief from doctors who told her it was muscular and would just go away.

Finally, in October 2019, she found a radiologist who ordered an MRI, and careful examination of the test results led to a diagnosis of the very rare disorder.

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Nutcracker Syndrome causes incapacitating abdominal, flank and pelvic pain, and since "Nutcracker Pheonomena" is rare, patients are frequently misdiagnosed.

Nutcracker Phenomena is an abnormality in the vein that drains the left kidney (the left renal vein), which gets squeezed between a few neighboring blood vessels, causing pressure to build in the kidney.

That pressure is what causes the painful symptoms. Northwell Health Transplant Center Director Dr. Lewis Teperman used a holiday prop to explain the analogy.

"This is a nutcracker, and if you took a vein from the kidney and you crushed it like you were going to crush a nut, you would cause that kidney terrible pain," he said.

Her search for a surgeon with knowledge of Nutcracker led to a visit to Dr. Elliot Grodstein in September. He was able to assure Lucas that her symptoms were real and not a figment of her imagination.

Proper treatment meant a surgery, scheduled for December 7, in which the affected kidney and its vein are moved to a healthier area and re-transplanted to a new location.

By doing this, the vein is no longer compressed, and the kidney is relieved of pressure.

But Lucas had an unusual and remarkable request. She told Dr. Grodstein that she didn't want her kidney auto-transplanted, but rather, when her kidney was removed, she wanted it to be given to a recipient on the waiting list.

That's how 61-year-old Yvette Caton's life was changed forever.

Diagnosed in her mid-30s with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS, a disease in which scar tissue develops on the parts of the kidneys that filter waste from the blood, Caton was placed on the kidney transplant waiting list in 2012 and began dialysis in 2013.

The seriousness of her condition would have proven fatal without a transplant.

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"What he said was, he had an altruistic donor," Caton said. "And I never imagined that I would get a kidney from a living donor."

They say this story is so important because due to the pandemic, live organ donations have nearly stopped.

"There are still many many Heathers out there who are looking to help people," Dr. Grodstein said.

The two women were able to meet each other in North Shore University Hospital post-surgery, and both are looking forward to a pain-free Christmas.

They also reunited Wednesday with Dr. Grodstein, Dr. Teperman, and transplant surgeon Dr. Ahmed Fahmy, who performed Caton's surgery.

"My heart's desire was to donate my kidney," Lucas said.

For her, it was a way to get her life back -- but at the same time to give life to someone else.

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