The Hartford Hospital living kidney donation team, including Kari Rancourt (back row, right), helped get Cliff O’Connell a new kidney. O’Connell and Rancourt spoke to Connecticut Public Radio about the transplant to mark a new national living donor day. CHRIS RAKOCZY / HARTFORD HOSPITAL

Cliff O’Connell’s future was once pretty murky. By 2019, he’d had kidney disease for 14 years.

“‘Am I going to be on dialysis? Am I going to have to stop working?’ Because I work 70 to 80 hours a week, and I couldn’t picture just sitting around,” O’Connell said.

He needed a transplant. For anyone who needs a new kidney, Kari Rancourt says, avoiding dialysis is crucial.

“Your best option is to get transplanted quickly — ideally before ever needing to start dialysis, and that’s only really an option with living donation,” said Rancourt, the living donor transplant coordinator at Hartford Hospital.

She says that traditionally, the emphasis has been on donor registration — people who signed up to donate organs upon their death. That waiting list, one O’Connell could’ve been placed on, can be five to seven years long.

“Once I hit a certain percentage of kidney function — being down to like 15 percent — we started the whole process, and within six months I had the transplant,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell, who’s from Durham, spoke to Connecticut Public Radio on April 7, the first-ever nationally recognized observance of living donation. O’Connell and local advocates for those who need lifesaving organ transplants marked it by asking people to register to donate a kidney.

When O’Connell went on his journey to find a living donor, he and his wife created an advertising campaign that involved signs on their cars encouraging donation. As the campaign carried on, a family friend stepped up.

Joanne Denault of East Hartford called up Rancourt’s team at Hartford Hospital and got tested.

“The results came back, and I was a match,” Denault said.

But that wasn’t the end of the saga. Her kidney was too small, so Rancourt’s living donor transplant unit had to get creative.

“We approached them with the option to enter into an exchange program as a compatible pair, and we were able to basically help find Cliff a larger kidney that would give him better outcomes and have lower surgical risks, and allow Joanne to donate to someone else who was maybe harder to find a match for,” Rancourt said.

O’Connell did get his new kidney. He credits Denault for the lifesaving transplant.

“I owe her my life,” O’Connell said. “There’s nothing else that can be said — so generous of her to do that.”

In return for sacrificing a kidney, Denault says she’s gained an electrician for life — and a family member.

“Even though we’re not blood, we’re family,” Denault said.

Besides having to drink more water, and continually monitor her protein intake, Denault said the donation has meant minimal physical impact on her livelihood.

“After the surgery, within two weeks I was somewhat back to normal,” Denault said. “I would tell anyone who’s considering it, who wants to do it for a friend, a family member or for a stranger, do it. It’s an amazing, amazing feeling.”

Prospective donors can visit or call (860)-696-2021 for more information.

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