Kidney recipient meets donor from Belleville at Cardinals game
You've heard stories of people donating kidneys — to parents, children, siblings, spouses, co-workers, neighbors, teachers and students.
But complete strangers? Not so much.
Scott Hopfinger, 41, of Belleville, became an anonymous kidney donor last year after watching a viral video showing two kids from Pennsylvania pleading for their gravely ill mother, who needed a kidney transplant.
"I have a son," Scott said. "Just seeing those children ... Something moved me, and I wanted to help."
Scott couldn't donate a kidney to the Pennsylvania woman due to logistical problems. But St. Louis doctors matched him with a young mother on dialysis in Springfield, Missouri.
The transplant took place Oct. 10 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
Scott didn't know the identity of the recipient, Beth Larsen, 29, until six months later, when she asked the hospital to deliver a letter and a necklace with a kidney-shaped pendant engraved with the words "Thank you."
Scott reached out to her on Facebook, and they've been corresponding ever since.
"She's got a love for life and the people around her," he said. "She's constantly trying to make people smile, and I'm the same way. I don't know how to say this, but I believe there was something that put us together."
First meeting at ballpark
Scott and Beth met for the first time Sunday on the field at Busch Stadium as part of Transplant Awareness Day. Each threw a ceremonial first pitch before a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.
Never mind that Scott is a die-hard Cubs fan.
Scott and Beth walked to home plate together, stopping halfway to hug. After their throws, Cardinals pitcher John Brebbia signed the baseballs. Beth was wearing a Yadier Molina jersey. Scott's T-shirt had a record album on it.
"I'm a music lover," he said, grinning.
Scott did manage to come up with a powder-blue Cardinals cap, but he joked that it was stinging his head a little.
The well-orchestrated ballpark event was designed to promote "altruistic" donations, those by people willing to give up one of their two kidneys to save the lives of strangers.
Scott and Beth seemed a little overwhelmed by the cameras and microphones in their faces, but they smiled politely and answered reporter questions.
"If I could have kept (my donation) anonymous, that would have been preferable," Scott said. "But I realize the power that my voice has in this situation. If people hear my story and that can move them to donate as well, I have to take advantage of that opportunity."
Family supported decision to donate
Scott is a 1995 Althoff Catholic High School graduate who works as credit manager for Footwear Unlimited in Fenton, Missouri. His wife, Carol, is employed by the same company in product development.
The Hopfingers have a son, Ben, 11, a student at Notre Dame Academy in Belleville; and a rescue dog, Ringo, born in a litter of four puppies named after The Beatles.
Scott saw the viral video with the Pennsylvania children in March of last year. He immediately walked down to his wife's office and told her he wanted to be screened as a possible kidney donor.
Carol, 41, wasn't surprised, knowing Scott as a naturally generous person. He's been a blood donor since she met him at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and he recently organized a benefit golf tournament for a family member with costly medical bills.
"My biggest concern was that he had never had surgery, and he's someone who whines when he has a cold," she said, laughing.
Scott's parents, Linda and Dennis Hopfinger, of Millstadt, initially were worried about the surgical risks, but they came around, taking pride in their son's selfless desire to help his fellow man.
Linda, 66, who retired from Allsup human resources, teared up talking about Scott's kindness as a boy playing sports. He could never muster animosity against his opponents.
"Anytime your son is having surgery, you're a little apprehensive," said Dennis, 70, an AT&T retiree. "Then I saw the story of Anne Allred, and that made me feel better."
Dennis was referring to the KSDK-TV anchor who successfully underwent kidney transplant surgery last year.
Swollen ankles signaled problem
Beth works in financial operations for Expedia. She has a 7-year-old son, Mason Shy. Husband Travis Larsen is a dispatcher for a trucking company.
Beth was healthy for the first 25 years of her life. Then she began having problems with high blood pressure and swollen ankles. In 2015, doctors diagnosed Goodpasture Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys and lungs.
"It's very fast-acting, so it can shut them down quickly," Beth said. "But I got it before it reached my lungs."
Beth underwent chemotherapy and plasmapheresis, the removal, treatment and return or exchange of blood plasma. But that didn't keep her kidney function from dropping to 15 percent.
Beth went on dialysis for four months, showed improvement and went off dialysis for a year before she was forced to return in early 2017. Her name was added to the National Kidney Registry waiting list.
On Sept. 26, three days before Beth and Travis got married, they learned that she would be getting a kidney from an anonymous living donor.
"We spent our honeymoon in St. Louis doing labs," Beth said. "But it was great because we didn't have any plans. I didn't want to go on a trip and do dialysis. They were 3 1/2-hour-long treatments. They were painful, and they drained every ounce of energy out of me."
Recovery easier than expected
Scott insists that leading up to the transplant in October, he was more concerned about missing Cubs games in the playoffs than his own health and well-being.
The recovery turned out easier than expected. Doctors told Scott to plan for four to six weeks, but he was working from home the second week and back in the office the third week.
"I have zero regrets," he said Thursday.
Beth has trouble putting her gratitude into words. The most dramatic change in her life is that she no longer has to purify her blood through dialysis three days a week, giving her more time with her son, husband and other family and friends.
Beth also is taking business and general-education classes at Ozark Technical Community College with plans to earn an accounting degree at a four-year university.
"I'm doing really great," she said. "I got a promotion in my job, and I've gone back to school. It's really improved my quality of life and relationship I have with my family. I'm no longer tied up with doctors appointments and dialysis treatments.
"And as far as me and my husband, after I have the kidney for a year, we can get approved to have more kids."
90,000 on national wait list
About 90,000 patients are waiting for kidneys in the United States, including more than 800 at Barnes-Jewish.
An average 250 kidney transplants take place at the hospital each year, according to Gene Ridolfi, administrative director of Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center.
"Every living donor is evaluated to validate that they are very healthy and have very good functioning kidneys," he said.
Sixty to 75 kidneys in Barnes-Jewish transplants come from living donors (as opposed to cadaver donors). Five or six of those are altruistic, not involving family or friends.
Ridolfi noted that the number of altruistic donations has increased slightly in recent years, a trend he would like to see continue.
"A person can live with just one kidney and lead a perfectly normal life," he said. "It doesn't change your quality of life."
Beth and Scott were joined on the field at Busch Stadium by their families and Dr. Jason Wellen, Beth's transplant surgeon; and Dr. Surendra Shenoy, who removed Scott's kidney.
Shenoy explained that Scott and Beth were in adjoining operating rooms. Scott's surgery lasted about three hours.
"He was probably the perfect donor," Shenoy said. "He was in good health, and he was in good shape. He wasn't overweight. And he was all for it. As an altruistic donor, he was fully motivated."
Anyone interested in donating a kidney can get more information at https://www.barnesjewish.org/Medical-Services/Transplant or 314-362-5365 or 800-633-9906, option 4.