A Hero in Scrubs: Nurse Angel Tsai lives up to her name, donating a kidney to a stranger

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As UCLA nurse Angel Tsai walked along the beach at Playa del Rey on a sunny and warm August day in 2022, she made a profound decision. Two days before, she had helped deliver a stillborn baby, which rocked her.  Needing a mental-health day to recover, Tsai took the day off and went for a stroll along the water to clear her head. As she did, she was struck with an epiphany: She wanted to save a life.

Compelled by her innate generosity and a promise to herself to live a life of meaning, Tsai chose to donate a kidney to an anonymous recipient. Her in-the-moment decision set her on the course for an extraordinary journey.

“I had this feeling like I won’t know how to live with myself if I don’t do this,” said Tsai. “So, I made the decision to donate.” 

Tsai began working at UCLA in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it was her own experience as an organ donor that would deepen her understanding and empathy toward those she cared for.

“Me being in the hospital and being cared for as a donor/patient has helped me to be a better nurse,” said Tsai.

Her parents initially were skeptical about her decision to donate, but Tsai was determined.

“I want to live a life that’s worth living. If I’m going to be alive, I want my life to be one that positively impacts other people’s lives,” she said. 

There were some obstacles along the way. Tsai broke her arm while snowboarding in January 2023, but that didn’t derail her. And then, while waiting for a recipient match, she and her boyfriend decided to get married. They wed just a few weeks before her scheduled surgery.

“He knew I was in the process of waiting to donate, and I hadn’t yet heard back from UCLA about a match, so we decided on a March wedding,” laughed Tsai.

An angel sent for Angel

As the days to her procedure drew closer, Tsai became increasingly anxious.

But, during one of her shifts, Tsai was introduced to another kidney donor by one of her patients. They bonded and encouraged each other. For Tsai, that meeting came at exactly the right time.

“He was a blessing that fell from the sky,” Tsai said. “He was also giving his kidney altruistically, and he became like a big brother who paved the way for me. His surgery was a day before mine, and we were texting and encouraging each other throughout the process, right up to the day of his surgery, and mine.”

After their surgeries, Tsai’s new friend, who was a therapist, took on an important role in her healing, helping to comfort and support her. 

A successful surgery with far-reaching impacts

The operation took place on April 12, and Tsai’s donated kidney was immediately transported to a waiting recipient in New Jersey. For Tsai’s surgeon, H. Albin Gritsch, MD, the generosity of donors like Tsai continually is a source of wonder. “This is the most altruistic gift one can make,” said Dr. Gritsch, the John Jergens Chair in Kidney Transplantation. “And when it is a health care provider who is the donor, it makes you appreciate their generosity even more. Every successful transplant moves those waiting for a transplant a little closer to their dream of having their turn at a life-changing operation,” said Dr. Gritsch. 

Tsai hopes that her story will help to motivate others. She would like to someday see the idea of donating a kidney become as accepted as donating blood. “Donating blood was once thought of as a big deal, and now people do it all the time,” she said. “If everyone thought about altruistic giving, more lives could be saved.”

 

 

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