Awesome People: Woman Donates Kidney on Valentine's Day


Originally appeared at GoLocalProv on 2/14/2011

Chocolate, flowers and jewelry all make for great gifts, but Elise Swearingen is going above and beyond this Valentine’s Day. The 27-year-old policy associate in Providence City Hall is spending the day at Rhode Island Hospital where she will donate a kidney to a colleague’s brother-in-law -someone she’s only known for a short time.

But the length of her relationship with Dr. Robert Robbio (the recipient of the kidney) means very little, the laid back Swearingen says. Simply put, she’s making the sacrifice because she believes it’s the right thing to do.

“It didn’t matter who it was,” Swearingen said. “There are a lot of people who need this and I wanted to help. It’s a personal decision, but I haven’t questioned it. I’m just like, I have two kidneys, I don’t understand why I can’t give one to him.”

We Barely Knew Each other

Swearingen isn’t the only person who wanted to step up to help the 59-year-old Robbio. He says there were eight others who went through the extended process that comes with donating a kidney. But for one reason or another, they were all unable to move forward.

Robbio learned that he was in urgent need of a transplant about a year ago after a routine doctor’s appointment. He said he’s had kidney problems for the last decade, but never thought it would get to a point where he would need to be hooked to a dialysis machine for five hours each day. But when his doctor called him one Saturday last February, he knew it could only be bad news.

That’s when he started searching for donors. He never thought of asking Swearingen.

“I had met Elise once or twice because she’s friends with my family,” Robbio said. “But if she were to walk in a room, I probably wouldn’t know who know who she was. Now she’s a member of the family.”

I Just Said I’ll Do It 

No one ever asked Swearingen to step up. Robbio’s sister-in-law, Sue, happens to be a colleague of Swearingen’s in City Hall. Sue approached her one day about setting up a Facebook group to generate awareness and possibly find Dr. Robbio a donor.

Almost immediately, Swearingen offered something better.

“I just said I’ll do it,’ Swearingen recalls.

Since then, she has constantly been on the go, from visiting doctors to making arrangements and Sue, who in a recent Facebook post she referred to as “my friend/sister/mother figure/sidekick,” has been there every step of the way.

“I’ve been at every doctor’s appointment and every blood test,” Sue Robbio said. “I can’t even begin to describe this. We had gone through our whole family and I just needed to make a Facebook page.”

A Second Chance

It was Swearingen’s altruistic spirit that put her in the position to meet Dr. Robbio in the first place. She grew up just outside of Kansas City and moved to Providence to volunteer with the City Year program. She expected to be in Rhode Island for a year. That was five years ago.

She took a job at City Hall and was quickly befriended by the Robbio family. Now she’s saving one of their lives.

“She’s giving a gift of life,” Dr. Robbio said. “It’s Valentine’s Day, but I look at it like it’s my birthday. I should have been dead and Elise has given me a second chance.“


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