PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A Portland area woman in need of a new kidney was able to successfully connect with a compatible donor in another state using TikTok, the video-centric social media platform known for launching trends in dances, music and popular culture in general.
Sammi Rivera starting going on dialysis around Thanksgiving 2017 after she was diagnosed with stage 4 chronic kidney disease, a long term effect of high running sugars in the body and from type 2 diabetes, she said.
“When I started dialysis I had become very depressed and was facing a lot of mental health issues because of the situation that I was in,” Rivera said.
Prior to the diagnosis, Rivera was working in Hollywood in the television industry. Once she went on dialysis, she had to move back to Portland, where she had a more substantial social support network,
At just 37, Rivera needed to do dialysis three days a week for four hours per day, a grueling treatment in which the blood is cleaned of unwanted toxins.
“It’s the equivalent of running a marathon every single time. So if you can imagine running three marathons a week, you’re going to get pretty tired. You’re going to get real tired and the side effects are disastrous,” Rivera said.
Doctors told Rivera she would have to make a number of changes to be eligible for a kidney transplant, such as changing her diet, adhering to medications, seeing her doctor regularly, and losing 100 pounds.
“Luckily for me, I was already on the work ups to get a gastric sleeve surgery, which actually helped me move the weight a lot faster,” Rivera said.
Prior to making the donor connection through TikTok, Rivera did have a donor lined up. But five months ago, the individual canceled at the last minute due to losing her home to California wildfires and losing both of her jobs due to COVID, she said.
“I decided, you know, I’m going to take my story to TikTok and see if I have a better reach to find someone, maybe a littler farther than Portland, or you know, just casting a bigger net,” Rivera said.
She then produced a video of herself in the dialysis treatment chair asking for a live kidney donor, which brought 50,000 views and over 3,000 shares. In the next video, Rivera took to dancing, dressed as a unicorn with a rainbow tutu, in her plea for a donor.
A woman in Gulf Shores, Alabama, saw the dancing unicorn video on her “For You” page and recognized the name.
“I knew of Sammi several years ago through a mutual friend, through Facebook. And I knew that she had gotten sick and they had moved back to Portland,” Sparkie Harrison told KOIN 6 News. “And that was all I knew. And then we’d lost contact since then.”
Then in fall of 2020, Sparkie decided to download TikTok for the first time after a friend showed her viral dance videos on the platform.
“Within the first two days, I guess, this weird little video of this person wearing a unicorn outfit and dancing and said, looking for a living donor, O positive blood. And I saw the name. I thought, no that couldn’t be the same Sammi. Like, could that be?” she said. “It just was like, I have O positive blood, so I contacted her: What you need? I knew that you could live with one kidney.”
After receiving the go-ahead from her doctor that she was healthy enough to donate her kidney, Harrison began coordinating with Sammi to get the necessary paperwork, blood tests, physicals, scans and other requirements for the procedure.
“And by February, shortly after my birthday, we had a date scheduled,” Rivera said. “On March 9th, she went into Emory Medical in Atlanta, Georgia, at 6 a.m. And by later that evening, 6 p.m., I was in surgery here at Legacy Good Samaritan receiving her kidney that they had flown from Atlanta.”
She said she actually heard the helicopter land at the hospital with her kidney and that the doctors showed it to her before putting her under for the surgery. Harrison said it was transported “in one of those red coolers.”
When asked what motivated her to offer giving her kidney, Harrison said: “It just sounded right. It was just, oh she needs a kidney, I can do this. And it was just the right thing to do.”
Rivera is now in the post-operation recovery phase and must wait two more months before being released back to work. She said she isn’t sure if she’ll seek work in Portland or go back to Los Angeles.
“I do want to get back into that line of work, ’cause that is my passion,” said Rivera, who before becoming a producer for T.V., attended film school at Clackamas Community College.
Harrison, who also lived in Portland many years ago but moved to Alabama in 2006, said she plans to visit the Rose City over the summer to meet with Rivera face-to-face, for the first time.
The meet-up is an opportunity Rivera is planning to film and hopefully produce a documentary about her story, she said.
Rivera said she gained over 100,000 views combined on TikTok from the posts related to her trying to find a kidney. She emphasized that shares are the biggest contributors to posts gaining traction on the site.
Rivera is still seeking help covering the medical costs associated with the procedure through a GoFundMe page.