Terie Cota, an elementary school administrator from Santa Maria, Calif., describes herself as an "average 56-year-old woman." She has been married 34 years, is the mother of four sons and grandmother of two little girls. But there is nothing average about Terie Cota because she chose to do something few others would think to do: She donated one of her healthy kidneys to a total stranger.
Because of that extraordinary gift, Cota will represent Cedars-Sinai's Comprehensive Transplant Center by walking alongside the 2014 Donate Life Rose Parade Float.
"I don't like to make a big deal about what I have done, but I think it is a good opportunity to bring attention to how much organ donors are needed and also to see the recipients of new organs riding the float and thriving," said Cota.
Her altruistic decision has its roots in a deep family loss. In 2010, Cota was identified as a match for her husband's ailing brother, who desperately needed a kidney. "I was truly looking forward to being a part of giving Christopher back his active life," said Cota.
But for the next two years, her brother-in-law battled additional health conditions and was never healthy enough to undergo transplant surgery.
"In May of 2012, he died unexpectedly as the result of one of his many health challenges," said Cota. "It was such a blow to our whole family."
Cota recalls that even in her grief, she could not shake the feeling that, as Christopher's planned donor, her journey was not over just because he died.
"One of my kidneys really belonged to him and I had just been caring for it until he was well enough to have it. Now that he no longer needed it, I began to wonder if it could help someone else," she said.
Cota then investigated doing what is known as a "non-directed donation," by offering her kidney to someone she did not know.
Cota said she received a call on May 28 of this year - the one-year anniversary of her brother-in-law's death - from Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Transplant Center staff members who told her they had a recipient and a date for the surgery. "My sister-in-law said it was like her husband, Chris, was giving us his blessing," Cota said.
Three weeks later, she was wheeled into the operating room to give her kidney to someone she had never met. "It was such a safe thing to do and relatively easy. It was kind of like the pain and recovery from childbirth: You feel like yourself within a month or two and you don't remember the pain. The pain doesn't seem to matter because you realize what good it has done," Cota said.
It turns out Cota's decision did more good than she expected. The fact that her healthy kidney remained in the transplant system led to a "paired kidney donation." This involved a process in which one person's donation resulted in two people receiving kidneys.
It worked like this: One of Cota's kidneys went to a 65-year-old man from Santa Barbara, Calif., whom Cota did not know. That patient had originally been offered a kidney from someone he knew, but the organ was not a good match. The kidney he was supposed to receive then became available to someone else who was a good match.