Radical Collaboration

Illustration: Erin Sonnenschein

Elaine Murray was sitting at her desk at Genentech last year when she got an unusual email from a teacher at her son’s school.

“This may well be the most important letter I write in my lifetime—certainly it is the hardest,” the note began. “I am writing because I am looking for a living kidney donor for myself.”

The author was Kim Saxe, ’80, MS ’80, a design thinking teacher from Los Altos, Calif., who directs the Innovation Lab at the Nueva School, an independently run K-12 school nearby.

Saxe’s kidney function had been declining for a decade, but last year she was in a downward spiral heading toward end-stage renal disease. “I am acutely eager to find a donor,” Saxe wrote in the letter. She pointed out that survival rates for transplants from living kidney donors average 18 years compared with 13 years for a transplant from a deceased donor. “Unfortunately, no one in my family can donate for various reasons. . . . So, I humbly turn to my extended family of the last 26 years, my Nueva family.”

‘I am writing because I am looking for a living kidney donor for myself.’

Murray’s son, now a senior at Nueva, had known Saxe since third grade. Murray remembers being impressed by his experiences in the iLab and in an engineering-focused LEGO program Saxe led.

Murray clicked on the link in Saxe’s email and filled out the donor candidate questionnaire.

She wasn’t the only one. At least 35 people—most of them from Nueva—filled out the forms to be considered as living kidney donors. Saxe says her nephrologist was stunned. “He lowered his glasses on his nose and looked at me,” she remembers. “ ‘Wait a minute. Are you telling me that since we met four weeks ago, you’ve gotten 35 potential donors?’ He had never heard of anything like that before.”