Actor gives gift of life to colleague

Theater community rallies to help Utahn

Published: Thursday, Sept. 10 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kidney donor Ryan Poole of Murray, left, embraces recipient Paul Gibbs of Kearns during a recent checkup at Intermountain Medical Center.

Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News

When Paul Gibbs, a 34-year-old actor and film student, found out he needed a kidney transplant, the first thing that went through his head was, "Can I still go to my callback (audition) tonight?"

While Gibbs, who has done theater since he was 14, didn't get to the audition, he did find through his two-year ordeal that there really are no people like show people — not when one of their own needs a lifesaving transplant.

Local actor Ryan Poole gave the gift of life to his former castmate, while the local theater community rallied in support.

"It speaks to the kind of person he (Gibbs) is," said Poole.

Gibbs, along with three siblings, was born with bilateral ureteral reflux and had kidney problems all his life.

"I had nine surgeries on my kidneys before I was 5," said Gibbs "For most people, it is corrected with one surgery."

In November 2007, Gibbs noticed he "had a strong tendency to get sick easily. Every four to six weeks I'd get flu-like symptoms. I'd be listless.

"I'd always lived with bad kidneys, but that had been a reality for so long that I didn't take it seriously."

Tests revealed he needed a transplant.

Doctors initially hoped Gibbs' twin brother could be the donor. "But I knew he wasn't a likely option," Gibbs said. "He'd had 17 surgeries on his intestines. His kidney was a perfect match, but it wasn't a healthy choice."

Then word of Gibbs' condition started to trickle through the theater community.

"Theater people have come out of the woodwork to help with fundraising or support," Gibbs said. "They've just made me feel like I haven't been going through this alone at any step of the way."

They organized fundraisers, and the theaters Gibbs has worked for — Off-Broadway and the Children's Theatre — also helped.

But fundraising wasn't enough — his theater friends wanted to do more.

"Suddenly they started contacting me and asking, 'Can I be tested?' I was pretty overwhelmed by the fact that they were asking to be my kidney donor," Gibbs said.

The response among the local theater community also overwhelmed the transplant clinic. Clinic staffers called Gibbs and requested he not have any more friends contact them until they were ready for more.

"Honestly, I didn't think people liked me as much as they do," he said.

According to organ and tissue donation Web site www.organdonor.gov, there are nearly 60,000 people on the kidney donation waiting list. The wait can take years — 3,000 people die annually while waiting for a new organ.

Then, one day Poole, who had appeared with Gibbs in a production of "You Can't Take It With You" at Hale Centre Theatre in 2004, contacted him and said, "I know this is going to be a long-shot, but I'd like to be tested to see if we're a match."

"I was touched but didn't expect anything to come out of it," Gibbs said.

Tests proved him wrong.

"We were as good a match as if we were siblings," Poole said. "I was surprised. To look at us ... we're distinctly different people. We don't look like a match for anything, ever."

Poole said his wife and fellow actor, Marissa, was "ultra-supportive," even though she was eight months pregnant at the time of the transplant. Poole also has 7-year-old triplets from a previous marriage.

"To have these people be willing to sacrifice for me was incredibly touching and humbling," Gibbs said.

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