When a local TV weatherman did a live broadcast from Hanley Elementary 25 years ago, he met a teacher who stole his heart.
On Tuesday, Nov.23, 20 years after they were married, he also gave her his kidney.
“I believe God brought us together for this moment in time,” Chip Washington, 64, said as he and his wife, Wanda, 62, prepared for their surgeries.
Technically, it wasn’t Chip’s kidney that was transplanted into Wanda’s body Tuesday afternoon at Methodist University Hospital.
Chip and Wanda are compatible, but their blood types aren’t. So Chip’s left kidney was removed Tuesday morning and sent to someone else who needed a transplant.
That allowed Wanda to receive a compatible kidney from another donor Tuesday evening. It’s called a paired kidney donation and it’s rare.
One in four kidney transplants are made possible by living donors. One in 20 are through paired donations. One in three pairings involve spouses.
“I didn’t want him to risk it, but he was determined, so I just asked the Lord to work it out,” Wanda said.
“I just believe the world is a better place with her in it,” Chip said.
‘I didn’t know who he was’
When Chip met Wanda in 1996, it was love at first sight – for Chip.
“She thought I was arrogant because I was a TV dude,” said Chip, whose big, booming voice seems to have a built-in microphone. “And I was a little something back in the day.”
Chip, who grew up in Los Angeles, worked for TV stations in Meridian and Jackson, Mississippi, before moving to Memphis in the early 1990s.
He worked three years as a weatherman for Fox 13, then five more as a reporter for Action News 5.
“I didn’t know who he was,” said Wanda, who speaks with a soft, gentle voice of an elementary school teacher. “I hadn’t heard of him, and when I met him I didn’t like him.”
Wanda, who grew up in Memphis, attended Overton High, and graduated from the University of Memphis in 1982, has been teaching special education for 38 years at Hanley, Graceland and now Jackson Elementary.
Chip noticed Wanda walking by the school office. He asked the school’s principal to introduce him. She did. He and Wanda spent what was left of the afternoon talking in her room.
“When I shook her hand, I just felt something. I knew,” Chip said.
“When he left, I told my friend, who was the guidance counselor, that I’d just met the man I was going to marry,” Wanda said.
‘She was in so much pain’
Wanda had been diagnosed with hypertension in her teens. She took medication for a while, then stopped.
“I was fine,” Wanda said. “I gave birth to my son when I was 31. I ran all the time. Never had a weight problem or diabetes. Never had any issues with my blood pressure or anything else.”
Not long after she and Chip were married, Wanda was having lunch with friends. One of them noticed that Wanda’s ankles were swollen.
“I’d noticed, too, but I hadn’t thought much about it,” Wanda said. “I felt fine, but I told them I’d go get a physical.”
Swollen ankles can be a symptom of decreased kidney function. Wanda’s doctor ran some tests and referred her to a nephrologist.
The kidney specialist told her she was suffering from a serious and extremely rare kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS.
“We don’t know the cause of FSGS, and it can recur,” said Dr. Jason Vanatta, a surgeon for the opens in a new windowJames D. Eason Transplant Institute at Methodist University Hospital.
Doctors diagnose FSGS in about seven out of a million people every year, though more often in African Americans than other ethnicities.
Scar tissue develops on parts of the kidneys that filter waste from the blood. Over time, the scarring can lead to kidney damage and failure.
“At one point I was taking 27 pills a day,” Wanda said.
“She was in so much pain she was crying,” Chip said.
‘What else can I do?’
When Wanda was first diagnosed, her kidney function was about 50%. Lately, it has declined to about 15%.
“I go to work, then I come home and go to bed,” Wanda said.
“The doctor said she’s on the verge of having to go on dialysis,” Chip said. “Uh, huh. Not while I’m around.”
Chip wanted to give his wife one of his own kidneys.
“I wasn’t a match,” Chip said. “Neither was her son. None of our other family or friends were matches. We were getting a little panicky.”
Kidney transplants have become more common, but they are not common enough.
More than 100 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list every day.
An average of 13 people die each day while waiting for a kidney transplant. Another 10 people become too sick to receive a kidney transplant.
Kidney disease is even more dire for Black Americans, who are four times more likely to suffer kidney failure and be on dialysis.
“What else can I do?” Chip asked people at the James D. Eason Transplant Institute at Methodist.
They told him about kidney paired donations. The National Kidney Registry would find a compatible recipient for Chip’s kidney. That would allow Wanda to receive a compatible kidney from someone else.
“I was raring to go,” Chip said.
“I was just praying it would all work out,” Wanda said.
‘I just kept praying’
In late 2019, doctors ran tests and told Chip he was not a good candidate for a paired donation.
He was overweight. His blood pressure was too erratic. Given his age and health status, removing one of his kidneys was too risky.
“I told her docs, I’m not doing anything that won’t help her,” he said.
He closed his “sweet shop” — the table in his bedroom he would stack high with Hostess cupcakes.
He started exercising regularly. Wanda made him fruit smoothies packed with vitamins and protein.
He lost more than 30 pounds. His blood pressure leveled out.
“Then the pandemic hit,” Chip said.
After he left the TV business, Chip worked in communications for the Shelby County Sheriff’s office and then MLGW.
“He’s the kind of guy you want on your team. Passionate. Kind. A consummate professional in everything he did,” said Lela Garlington, a former journalist who worked with Chip at MLGW and became friends with Wanda.
“Chip and Wanda have such a strong bond with each other and with God,” Garlington said. “They knew this whole process was on God’s time – not theirs. They accepted that.”
In July 2020, Chip became the public information officer for the COVID-19 Response Team at the Shelby County Health Department.
“I’m been around a lot of news stories over the years, but never anything like Covid,” Chip said. “It’s a monster than just keeps coming.”
The pandemic changed Chip’s professional and personal life.
“When Covid hit, transplants stopped,” Chip said. “It set us back for over a year.”
“I just kept praying,” Wanda said.
Two weeks before their surgeries, Chip and Wanda spoke by phone to two men who were part of a opens in a new windowkidney paired donation here last summer.
Lee Giovannetti, 65, a local businessman, donated a kidney to the exchange. That allowed his friend, Rev. Colenzo Hubbard, 66, an Episcopal priest, to receive a kidney transplant and end years of dialysis.
“They both were so encouraging,” Chip said. “After talking to them, we were more sure than ever that we were doing the right thing.”
Colenzo told Wanda that he recited the 23rd Psalm as he went into surgery.
“It was right after that call we found out our surgeries were scheduled for the 23rd,” Wanda said. “That was confirmation for me that the Lord has always been in the middle of this.”
Monday evening, Chip hosted his regular weekly radio show, opens in a new windowReal Talk Memphis, on WYXR-FM. Afterward, he posted a brief video message on his Facebook page.
“I’m going to be off the air for the next few weeks,” Chip said. “I’m having major surgery tomorrow morning. This operation I’m having is going to help someone else.” He didn’t mention who.
Early Tuesday morning, a surgeon removed Chip’s left kidney and sent it off to be transplanted into someone else later that day.
About 12 hours later, a surgeon implanted someone else’s kidney into Wanda’s abdomen.
“The procedure lasted about an hour and a half and there were no complications,” said Vanatta, how performed the transplant. “Her new kidney is working well.”
Early Wednesday morning, Chip texted Lee and Colenzo, his kidney paired transplant friends.
“I am now minus a kidney,” Chip texted. “Wanda’s surgery is done and a success. I’m pretty sore but holding up. Be here til Friday. So thankful to God for His grace and for the prayers.”
This story first published by The Institute for Public Service Reporting Memphis