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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Dr. Diane Alonso gives a plaque to Pamela Sheppard, right, who donated a kidney to her husband Lee Sheppard, center, at a press conference celebrating 1,000 live donor kidney transplants at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011.

MURRAY — Described as history in the making, a cause for celebration, and a reason to give thanks, doctors at Intermountain Medical Center Monday announced their 1,000th living donor kidney transplant.

The news was that much sweeter because the 1,000th donor was Pam Sheppard who donated a kidney to her husband, Lee Sheppard.

“Believe me," the Provo man said. “We were a perfect match in marriage, now we are a perfect match again.”

On Thanksgiving Day last year, Lee Sheppard ended up in the emergency room suffering from kidney failure. He had been diagnosed many years earlier with polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition that had killed his father and grandfather. He had lived with the disease for years with few symptoms until that day.

Doctors had told him his kidneys would only last about a year in 2010. But large, dark cysts caused severe pain for Sheppard and brought concern about cancer. Doctors removed both of his kidneys, which were functioning at less than 20 percent of normal.

Following the surgery, Sheppard began dialysis and his wife began to ponder giving him her kidney.

“It was amazing how many lovely people came out of the woodwork and volunteered their kidneys. It’s not something that’s easy to say ‘thank you’ to when somebody offers you such a great gift," Pam Sheppard said. “I felt so privileged that I became the best match.”

"How overwhelmingly grateful I am for my wife for making such a sacrifice. We feel so liberated and energized for what the future holds, so, we're deeply grateful," Lee Sheppard said.    

“We already enjoyed a rich love together, but this last year — which has been a journey — has reinforced it in such a way that it’s hard to put a finger on it,” Lee Sheppard said. “The transplant center team is very, very profession and does everything it can to make sure nothing goes wrong … but also (shows) real concern, really compassionate.”

Dr. James Stinson recalled the first such donation — 28 years ago — when a sister gave a kidney to her brother.

“It freed him from dialysis and gave him many years of life that he would not otherwise have had,” he said.

Today, the Intermountain Transplant Program performs more than 135 heart, kidney, liver and pancreas transplants each year.

Dr. Diane Alonso, another surgeon with the Intermountain Transplant Team, recognized the courage and generosity of the human spirit.

"It cements that living donation is a vial source of organs not only in this state but in the country, but particularly in this state," she said. "At our institution, 50 percent of our kidney donations are from live donors."

That cuts down on the wait time for a kidney. In Utah, patients wait an average of 10 months for a transplant. In California, for example, the wait can be up to five or six years.

Six months before she was cleared as a match, doctors discovered Pam Sheppard had nodes on her lungs, so there were more tests to find out if she had cancer. Last month,  she became the official donor. The couple went into surgery together and came out together. They could be seen walking the halls, pulling their IV stands and holding hands.

“This is a thousand live donors whose lives have been turned around and they can again feel like they can contribute to society. That’s just fabulous.” Pam Sheppard said.

And with a bright smile, she added, “It’ll be a much better Thanksgiving than the last one."

“That’s for sure,” her husband echoed.

Anyone can be screened to find out if he or she is a match for a patient who needs a kidney or a liver. Intermountain’s transplant team has performed 31 “Good Samaritan” surgeries since 2002.