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A Kidney from Santa Claus

 4 min read

For retired Jefferson employee and living kidney donor Cameron Smith, giving—and giving back—are not just priorities. They are as essential as the blood running through his veins—an undeniable mission that touches all aspects of his life.

“Happily retired” since July 2023, Smith spent more than 20 years at Jefferson culminating in a role as a research administrator. But his involvement went way beyond the expected 9-5 day. “I’ve always wanted to give back,” he says. “I got involved in a lot of things and signed up for anything that I could to try to help.”

A regular blood and platelet donor since he started at Jefferson, Smith’s name now resides on the donation “Wall of Fame.” His other activities run the gamut from a 15-year stint as Santa Claus to volunteering his time with the “No One Dies Alone” Program, where volunteers sit at the bedside of patients who are expected to pass away in the next 72 hours and don’t have family or friends with them.  

“I think I’m supposed to give back to others when I can,” he shares. “It’s just what I do, and how I feel.”

It is not surprising to learn that when Smith’s nephew in Ohio was on dialysis and needed a kidney, he immediately volunteered to be tested, seeking help at Jefferson’s Nicoletti Kidney Transplant Center. Founded through philanthropy, the center specializes in living donation and is among the highest rated such centers in the region.

“There aren’t enough kidneys…not enough organs,” Smith says. “I’m an organ donor. I’ve always believed that when I’m done with my organs, if somebody else can use them, by all means use them. Living donation is certainly a different step. Not a lot of people take that step, but for me it was as easy a decision as when I go give blood.”

“I knew that he needed a kidney, so I was willing to give,” he explains. “I went through the testing, and it turned out we were an excellent match. I had concerns initially that one of us would have to travel in order to do the donation because my nephew lived in Cincinnati.”

However, Smith’s Jefferson team explained that kidneys do better in transit than other organs such as a heart or liver. Smith’s surgery was done at Jefferson, and his kidney was transported to his nephew in Ohio.

“Individuals at Jefferson will assist you in answering any medical questions, or they will put you in contact with people who have gone through the process and can tell you what you have to look forward to and the problems that you may deal with,” Smith says. “Jefferson performs such a high volume of procedures that they know what to look for if there’s a problem, and what idiosyncrasies can occur with any individual donation. My surgeon Dr. Jaime Glorioso was wonderful, and she explained everything ahead of time.”

Once the kidney was received in Ohio, although his nephew’s surgery was successful, initially the kidney was not working. “At week five, it started to work,” Smith says. “It kicked in, and has been working fine ever since. It’s like a diesel engine.”

While Smith’s lifesaving gift to his nephew may have initially slowed him down, he is back in full force, running races and triathlons. But Smith is not just pulling his own weight. For the past seven years, Smith has joined “Ainsley’s Angels,” an organization promoting inclusion by helping individuals with disabilities participate in races, from 5K to marathons. Smith has raced with Gabe, a young man with cerebral palsy, as his passenger. “We’ve done 11 triathlons so far,” he says. For the swim portion, he pulls Gabe on a raft sitting backwards. For the bike and running portions, Gabe rides in an open-air trailer, and is pulled, and pushed, respectively.

Gabe’s joy as a participant is infectious. “It’s during the run when I start to really hear him,” Smith smiles. “He starts shouting and you can hear him telling people we’re on the left, and just letting people know we’re coming. He gets very excited, especially when we get a little bit closer toward the end. The smile that I see on his face at the end of every race makes everything worthwhile.”

“I’ve had people ask me about all of the different things that I do,” he says. “I think what people miss out on is looking for an opportunity to make a difference in somebody else’s life. Each one of us has an opportunity to make a difference, even if it’s a small difference. You take a million people all making a small difference, and you make a big difference. That's what brings me happiness.”

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