When Jeanette Bernard needed an urgent kidney transplant in January 2018, it was not a stranger from a donor list but her own cousin, Jill Palermo, who came to her aid.

Jeanette’s kidney disease diagnosis in 2009, when she was in her late 20s wasn’t a total shock. The disease, which results in the progressive loss of kidney function and leads to permanent kidney failure, runs in her family. In 2012, one of Jeanette’s family members underwent a successful kidney transplant at Massachusetts General Hospital, so, when Jeanette’s primary care physician confirmed that she, too, was living with a steadily failing kidney, she followed in her family’s footsteps.

“We wanted to be at the best hospital,” Jeanette said. From then on, under the attentive care of Andrew Allegretti, MD, MSc, director of Critical Care Nephrology at Mass General, Jeanette’s health was closely monitored as her team prepped for her future transplant.

In November 2014, Dr. Allegretti determined that it was time to start looking for Jeanette’s new kidney, and she was added to a lengthy donor waitlist. Over the next few years as Jeanette’s health steadily declined, her team grew uncertain that she would make it through the waitlist before requiring the transplant. Short on time and low on energy, Jeanette was nervous.

“I was tired, I was very weak,” Jeanette said, “I thought, what am I going to do if I can’t find a donor?”

When Jeanette reached out to family with news of her shortening timeline, Jill felt deeply for her. A few years earlier, when Jeanette’s sister was in the late stages of her disease, Jill had stepped forward to donate her kidney and had begun the intake process before learning that Michaela’s mother was a perfect match. Now, presented with another opportunity to help a relative, she was determined to try again.

Jill Palermo, patient, and her cousin, Jeanette Bernard, living donor
Jill Palermo (right) donated a kidney to her cousin, Jeanette Bernard (left)

“Jeanette is so young and vibrant, and she’s family,” Jill said. “I couldn’t imagine not at least trying.”

In July of 2017, Jill went in for her intake appointment at Mass General, where the nephrology team ran tests to determine if her kidney might be a suitable match for Jeanette. Four months later, Jill received news from the hospital. She was a perfect match. Breathless and excited, she called Jeanette to relay the news. Jeanette was going to be okay.

In the weeks leading up to the surgery, the cousins dealt with similar yet distinct emotions. For Jeanette, news of the upcoming transplant was “instant relief”—like a huge weight was taken off her shoulders. But for Jill, a wife and mother who had never undergone surgery, the feelings were a bit more complex. Of course, she maintained, “it’s an amazing feeling to know that you’re consciously choosing to save someone’s life.” At the same time, however, the risk that accompanied the surgery, and the uncertainty surrounding her own recovery, were sources of anxiety. Fortunately, with the support of her family, Jill never faltered in her commitment to Jeanette.

Under the care of Mass General transplant surgeons Shoko Kimura, MD, and Tatsao Kawai, MD, PhD, the cousins’ transplantation was a smooth success. Today, with both cousins recovered from the operation, it almost seems like nothing ever happened.

“I look back and remember I just felt very rundown," says Jeannete. "But now, I feel so alive. I feel like a new person. It’s unbelievable.” An active runner before her diagnosis, Jeanette had stopped exercising in the months leading up to her transplant as she felt increasingly weak and exhausted. Today, Jeanette’s energy has returned, and she’s gearing up to begin training once more.

Jill, similarly, told doctors following the surgery that she felt so good she could go back to work that coming Monday. At their persistent cautioning, however, she promised to take the required recovery time.

Jill hopes their success story will inspire others to consider donating to those in need. “There are so many people out there that need an organ donation,” Jill said, “and I think the more people that hear success stories like ours, the more people might be willing to step up and donate.”