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This story is part of our special coverage on unsung heroes of Sonoma County. To see more stories, click here.

Since human beings possess two kidneys but can lead a completely normal life with only one, it’s possible and maybe even likely that you might donate one of your kidneys to save a loved one or a friend. But would you do so for a complete stranger?

That’s what Windsor resident Lorene Romero did nearly two years ago. On the day before Christmas 2014, her kidney was removed in a surgical procedure at UCSF Medical Center for transplant into the body of someone she had never met and knew nothing about.

“My kidney was part of a chain,” she said. “It was flown to Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland, where it was transplanted into a recipient who remains unknown to me. That person, whoever it is, had a friend who donated a kidney in their name; it went to a recipient at UCLA Hospital. There were more recipients and donors in the chain, but that’s all I’m allowed to know.

“I never had any hesitation about doing this. It just felt like the right thing to do. And it was,” she said.

People who give the gift of life by donating a living kidney to someone with whom they have no connection are known as “altruistic” or “good Samaritan” donors. Romero’s altruistic journey began with a simple remark made by a friend while out on a bicycle ride.

“She told me her husband wasn’t cycling that day because he was sick,” Romero recalled. “He needed a kidney transplant. When I asked if I could help, she told me to get tested to see if my blood type was a match. That was a revelation. I knew that organs could be donated after death — I had been part of California’s organ donation program since it began, with the pink sticker on your driver’s license. But until that moment I had no idea there was such a thing as a living donor.”

Although kidney transplants can come from living and deceased donors, a living donor’s kidney is preferred for two reasons. It begins working in the recipient’s body almost immediately (a cadaveric kidney can take days and even weeks to get going), and it lasts about twice as long as a transplant from a deceased donor.

“It was the fact that my friend said, ‘Go get tested.’ I’ve always tried to be someone who makes a difference in the lives of others. It was clear to me that I’d be helping someone, so I went ahead and got tested.”

Romero wasn’t a match with her friend’s husband, but she decided she wanted to be on the donor list anyway. This required going through an evaluation process, which includes various kinds of testing that includes blood type, urine, radiology, psychosocial and/or psychological evaluation.

After passing all the tests, Romero was put on the list. In autumn 2014 a match was found, and in December she entered UCSF to have her kidney removed.

“Whatever fear I might have had was overtaken by trusting in the love of my spouse, Gayle Walz, and friends,” she said. “I trusted that I’d be taken care of. It was a free fall experience into trusting that I’d be supported. You’re no more vulnerable than when you’re in a situation like that.”

This story is part of our special coverage on unsung heroes of Sonoma County. To see more stories, click here.

One week after the operation, medical tests revealed that Romero’s remaining kidney was not only functioning normally, but “it was healthier than that of most people who have two kidneys.”

Romero recovered quickly and soon resumed her extremely active life. A resident of Windsor and a longtime travel consultant who owns Sharp Tongued Consulting, her responsibilities include being the Northwest Regional Director for the National Association of Career Travel Agents, a board member of both Windsor Grange and the Windsor Chamber of Commerce and president of the North Coast Mac Users Group.

Once a month you can find Romero at the Windsor Sunday market, where she shares the “Donate Life” booth with three-time kidney recipient Stacy Hoblitzell (their next appearance is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 11). “I represent living donors,” she said, “and Stacy represents recipients. We talk to people about donating.”

Federal guidelines regarding confidentiality guarantee anonymity of both parties. Some donors may eventually meet the recipient of their organ, but only if both parties agree. Romero has made her own contact information available if and when the recipient decides to contact her.

“I accept that it may never happen,” she said. “It’s fine. But I would love to thank that person for giving me the opportunity to experience something so off the charts. There was nothing in it for me, which is a reward in itself.

“You have never really lived until you do something for someone who can’t repay you. That person gave me an amazing gift.”

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