NEW YORK (ABC) -- An aunt's devotion to her niece inspired her to kick off a "kidney chain" that helped save the lives of three patients at a New York hospital.
Dawn Bates first volunteered to donate a kidney to her niece Nicole Johnson, who was diagnosed with acute kidney failure in 2014. When doctors realized that Bates was incompatible, Bates was insistent they find another way to help her niece even if it meant giving up her kidney to a stranger.
"This was an opportunity for me as a human being to do something good, without expectation," Bates told reporters today at North Shore University Hospital.
Last year doctors at hospital started searching for people who would agree to be part of a kidney chain. They found one couple: Tiffany and Terry Fung. Tiffany needed a kidney and while her husband was compatible, the potential transplant was being delayed due to the need for additional testing.
Bates' kidney would be available sooner, which would mean Fung could get off dialysis more quickly and resume her life. The couple agreed to "split their comparability," meaning Terry Fung volunteered to donate his kidney to a stranger if Bates agreed to donate her kidney to Tiffany.
"Whatever karma she put out, it worked for me," Tiffany told reporters. "Splitting up our compatibility to help someone else was…not a problem."
However, doctors still did not have a kidney for Bates' niece Nicole Johnson or a recipient for Terry Fung's donor kidney. They finally found a person to close the kidney chain in Catherine Richards, a teacher who had wanted to help her mother-in-law Elaine Richards get a new kidney, but was incompatible as a donor.
Terry Fung could be a kidney donor for Elaine Richards, and her daughter-in-law could be a donor for Bates' niece Nicole Johnson.
Catherine Richards said the experience was emotional, since her husband died shortly after getting a kidney transplant years earlier.
"I wanted to make sure that she could live life and be here with myself and my son," Richards told reporters.
For Johnson, she said she's amazed by how much her aunt has accomplished to help her.
"I was at a family dinner and out of no where she said, 'Nikki, I want to donate.' I was honored," Johnson recalled of her aunt. "I’m thankful for my aunt and for her spirit and attitude."
The kidney chain was even more remarkable since the operations had to take place over a period of months.
"When one person got transplanted we had to hope the next donor didn’t change their mind," said Dr. Nicole Ali, of the hospital's transplant center. "That took a leap of faith with each donor…it took amazing amount of generosity."
The first transplant started with Dawn Bates, who gave her kidney to Tiffany Fung in October 2015. Terry Fung then donated his kidney to Catherine Richards' mother-in-law Elaine months that December. Finally, Catherine Richards donated her kidney to Nicole Johnson this February.
"It’s overwhelming," Bates said. "It’s like planting seeds and seeing spring come and beautiful blossoms. I just planted seeds and this is the garden. It’s a beautiful garden."