2 SoCal families forever intertwined after donating organs to each other's siblings

Denise Dador Image
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
SoCal families make medical history with dual organ donation swap
Through a stroke of luck, Joselin Casillas and Rocha Fernandez would get a second chance at life thanks to each other's siblings.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Through genetic luck and perfect timing, two families from the San Gabriel Valley took part in a dual organ donation swap that has only happened twice in medical history.

Kathya Rocha, 28, was set to donate her kidney to her 40-year-old brother, Jaime Rocha Fernandez, when doctors discovered complications with her kidneys.

"Because there were just too many veins and arteries around my kidney that you know it's basically impossible," Rocha said.

Rocha's brother was born with kidneys too small to support his body. Since 2019, the father of three depended on dialysis, but felt he was getting worse.

"I started feeling sick, tired and with no energy," he said.

Meanwhile, another sibling pair also encountered a similar scenario with an organ swap.

Joselin Casillas, 28 was born with biliary atresia, a birth defect that prevents bile from the liver reaching the gallbladder. After years of living with fatigue and rarely leaving her home, she was told her liver function was failing.

"My skin was on the yellow side. More of an ashy green," Joselin Casillas said.

Her brother Saul Casillas was prepared to donate part of his liver to his older sister until doctors told him it wasn't going to work.

"The remaining portion of the liver would have actually been too small," said Dr. Jim Kim, director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at Keck Medicine of USC.

Kim and his team thought they could possibly arrange a very rare dual organ swap.

Doctors at Keck Medicine emphasized a dual organ paired exchange is rare in the living organ transplantation world.

"It was really about timing and a little bit of luck. It just so happened that their blood types matched and their antibody levels matched," Kim said.

In August 2023, all four patients entered the hospital for this landmark organ swap procedure. Rocha would donate a part of her liver to Joselin Casillas, while Casillas' brother would instead donate one of his kidneys to Rocha's brother.

"This kidney was functioning perfectly. So my body actually received it really well," said Rocha Fernandez.

Through a stroke of luck, Joselin Casillas and Rocha Fernandez would get a second chance at life.

"It's definitely very liberating to have my new liver. It's so liberating, just the freedom to live my life," said Joselin Casillas.

Seven months after the procedure, the two brother and sister pairs met for the very first time.

"They are kind of like an extended family because that's kind of how it feels," said Saul Casillas.

All four hope that by sharing their story they can inspire patients and their families to look into organ swaps and organ donation chains.

"Try for the organ swap. You're not just saving one person. You're saving two. And that is amazing," said Rocha.