EASTLAKE, Ohio — After more than a year of pain, tests, and finally a match, an Eastlake man is just days away from getting a new kidney and a new lease on life.
But all of that is up in the air now thanks to the Cleveland Clinic’s new policy requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for organ transplant recipients and donors.
Cleveland Clinic announced the policy earlier this week, just days before Mike Ganim was set to go in for surgery to get a kidney transplant.
Mike Ganim, 52, was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease when he was 27. He’s had ups and downs with his health over the years, but in March 2020 it took a turn for the worse. He developed a large blood clot that sent him to the hospital.
“The kidneys were so profound with cysts that they just pressed and pressed and pressed on his main vein and it bottlenecked it and it went all the way down into his leg,” said Debi Ganim, Mike Ganim’s wife.
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic told the Ganims there was no time to waste–Mike Ganim needed a kidney transplant.
It took months for Mike Ganim to get on the donor list in October 2020, then they were crushed in May of this year when a cousin who stepped up wasn’t a match. Finally, Debi Ganim turned to social media and put out a plea to family and friends.
“He's only going to be 52. And, you know, he should have a lot of years left, and we had 119 shares that week,” said Debi Ganim.
One of the people who saw the post and donated blood was Debi Ganim’s dear friend, Sue George. Debi Ganim was George’s daughter’s third grade teacher and they’ve kept in touch ever since.
“When I saw her posts on social media, that her husband needed this kidney, and knowing they ask for nothing from anybody, I immediately went to the computer and signed up to give blood,” said George. “They had matched our blood and mixed our blood together and it was a match.”
George said she was shocked and overjoyed by the news that she was a match.
“All along I said to my husband, 'we've got to try. I've got to try. You know I'm not going to be the match,' but I had to try. So I was shocked,” said George.
Then came more testing over the summer and a surgery finally scheduled for Oct. 13.
“We went for pre-op Monday, Oct. 4. Customary, everything was great. They treated us just like they always do and everything is set to go. My FMLA is put in place. Mike's FMLA is put in place. I had a lot of difficulty getting a substitute for my classroom. But we've finally got one, Sue's FMLA is put in place,” said Debi Ganim.
But Friday—five days before the operation—Cleveland Clinic called the Ganims to tell them that it was being put on hold because George isn’t vaccinated for COVID-19, even though Mike Ganim is.
“I don't know what that's going to mean. They called Mike and they said how sorry they are. The surgeons are devastated that this is a decision that came from the high up,” said Debi Ganim.
George isn’t vaccinated for religious and medical reasons, and said throughout the entire transplant process doctors have known that.
“It was never an issue, and not one doctor out of those doctors we've met with mentioned that it was an issue except for the pulmonary doctor who just tried to persuade me to get the shot and that was about a month ago,” said George.
George said the news about the policy has been devastating not only to the Ganims, but to her family as well.
“The doctors that we've worked with are so professional and wonderful, and I know their hands are tied, it's just coming from upper management, or upper people. I don't have anything against the doctors. The clinic is making what I feel is a big mistake,” said George. “They're putting this vaccination ahead of saving somebody's life. I'm willing to give a body part, a kidney to this man. And they are not going to do it because I'm not taking a shot. That makes no sense.”
In a statement, Cleveland Clinic said patients currently on the transplant waiting list for a deceased donor have until Nov. 1 to adhere to the policy. It didn’t specify a date for surgeries using a living donor, just that vaccination is required for both parties.
When does Cleveland Clinic's vaccination policy for organ transplant donors/recipients go into effect?
The vaccination is to prevent severe illness or death from COVID-19. To date, we have not removed anyone from the transplant waiting list because they were not vaccinated.
Patients currently on the waiting list have until November 1st to meet the Cleveland Clinic COVID-19 safety protocol for organ transplantation from a deceased donor. If patients waiting for an organ from a deceased donor are not vaccinated after 11/1, they will be made inactive on the UNOS waiting list.
For organ transplantation using a living donor, which involves the living donor undergoing a scheduled surgery, we are requiring COVID-19 vaccination for both donor and recipient before we can proceed with the surgery, for the safety of both.
Debi Ganim said her husband’s team is trying to come up with another solution, like having George’s surgery take place at another hospital and the kidney flown to the Clinic, but she believes there should be a grace period for people who have surgeries already scheduled.
“When we heard the Nov. 1, we were actually—kind of a sigh of relief,” said Debi Ganim. “But I don't agree with them changing it. I don't agree at all with them. And I feel like it's going to push us further. I feel like, if they don't come up with a solution, what's going to happen if they wait another week and another week then we lose everything.”
George said she’s not going anywhere, and will do anything she can to help the Ganims. However, she still does not want to get vaccinated.
“If there's any way shape or form I can do this for Mike, I'm going to do it. But I’m not getting the vax,” said George.
Debi Ganim said her husband is optimistic that the Clinic will come up with an alternative solution for this issue, but she’s worried that if the surgery is delayed for too long, they will not be able to use George as their donor.
“I’m just so afraid. I'm so afraid all over again, I mean we were crying and crying so many tears of joy and gratefulness over this happening, and now it's the opposite. I'm just so afraid,” said Debi Ganim.
The Ganims are expecting to hear from Cleveland Clinic on Monday about a possible solution to this issue.
In a statement to News 5, Cleveland Clinic said:
The health and safety of our patients is our top priority. Cleveland Clinic has recently developed safety protocols for solid organ transplantation that require COVID-19 vaccination to be an active transplant candidate or living donor. Vaccination is particularly important in these patients for their safety. For the living donor, preventing COVID-19 infection around the time of a surgical operation is crucial. For the transplant candidate, in addition to a major operation, medications taken after an organ transplant weaken a person’s immune response. Serious complications of COVID-19 are most likely to develop in those individuals who have weakened immune systems, as their body has a reduced ability to fight and recover from infections. The FDA-authorized vaccines have been determined to be safe and effective and are the best way to prevent severe illness and death from COVID-19.
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