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Actor gives gift of life to colleague

Theater community rallies to help Utahn

When Paul Gibbs, a 34-year-old actor and film student, found out he needed a kidney transplant, the first thing that went through his head was, "Can I still go to my callback (audition) tonight?"

While Gibbs, who has done theater since he was 14, didn't get to the audition, he did find through his two-year ordeal that there really are no people like show people — not when one of their own needs a lifesaving transplant.

Local actor Ryan Poole gave the gift of life to his former castmate, while the local theater community rallied in support.

"It speaks to the kind of person he (Gibbs) is," said Poole.

Gibbs, along with three siblings, was born with bilateral ureteral reflux and had kidney problems all his life.

"I had nine surgeries on my kidneys before I was 5," said Gibbs "For most people, it is corrected with one surgery."

In November 2007, Gibbs noticed he "had a strong tendency to get sick easily. Every four to six weeks I'd get flu-like symptoms. I'd be listless.

"I'd always lived with bad kidneys, but that had been a reality for so long that I didn't take it seriously."

Tests revealed he needed a transplant.

Doctors initially hoped Gibbs' twin brother could be the donor. "But I knew he wasn't a likely option," Gibbs said. "He'd had 17 surgeries on his intestines. His kidney was a perfect match, but it wasn't a healthy choice."

Then word of Gibbs' condition started to trickle through the theater community.

"Theater people have come out of the woodwork to help with fundraising or support," Gibbs said. "They've just made me feel like I haven't been going through this alone at any step of the way."

They organized fundraisers, and the theaters Gibbs has worked for — Off-Broadway and the Children's Theatre — also helped.

But fundraising wasn't enough — his theater friends wanted to do more.

"Suddenly they started contacting me and asking, 'Can I be tested?' I was pretty overwhelmed by the fact that they were asking to be my kidney donor," Gibbs said.

The response among the local theater community also overwhelmed the transplant clinic. Clinic staffers called Gibbs and requested he not have any more friends contact them until they were ready for more.

"Honestly, I didn't think people liked me as much as they do," he said.

According to organ and tissue donation Web site, there are nearly 60,000 people on the kidney donation waiting list. The wait can take years — 3,000 people die annually while waiting for a new organ.

Then, one day Poole, who had appeared with Gibbs in a production of "You Can't Take It With You" at Hale Centre Theatre in 2004, contacted him and said, "I know this is going to be a long-shot, but I'd like to be tested to see if we're a match."

"I was touched but didn't expect anything to come out of it," Gibbs said.

Tests proved him wrong.

"We were as good a match as if we were siblings," Poole said. "I was surprised. To look at us ... we're distinctly different people. We don't look like a match for anything, ever."

Poole said his wife and fellow actor, Marissa, was "ultra-supportive," even though she was eight months pregnant at the time of the transplant. Poole also has 7-year-old triplets from a previous marriage.

"To have these people be willing to sacrifice for me was incredibly touching and humbling," Gibbs said.

The generosity didn't stop with Poole and the theater community: It stretched beyond the stage and into the audience.

During the last two weeks of Hale's production of "Treasure Island," actors went into the lobby to collect money for the transplant.

"We've only done this twice before," said Sally Deitlein, vice president and executive producer of HCT. "And it's just amazing. People were just reaching into their purses and wallets, looking for every ounce of change. One lady wrote a check for $200.

"Our big burly pirates had tears in their eyes."

The patrons of HCT donated $17,000.

"They'll never know how big of a difference they've made in my life," Gibbs said. "To be able to get this surgery and go on and live my life — it's just a powerful example of the goodness in human nature.

"People are good, and not only are they willing to help, they're happy to help."

With Poole lined up for the transplant, Gibbs' time on dialysis was brief. "Only two months. It was physically draining. Some days too much fluid would get removed or too little and I'd have severe cramps, blurred vision and nausea," Gibbs said. "But I met some really good people. Both the medical professionals and fellow patients." Gibbs' voice changed slightly as he recalled, "Some of the people had been doing dialysis for over 10 years and aren't able to have a transplant. And they'd get so excited when they found out my transplant was coming up."

The transplant was performed Aug. 11. By Aug. 15, both men were on their way home.

"They said my kidney started working in Paul minutes after inserting," Poole said. "By all standards, it couldn't have gone better.

"People have just been remarkable — from our theater friends and patrons to the surgical team," he said. But Poole was quick to downplay his own sacrifice.

"It might be a few days in a hospital and 4 or 5 weeks convalescing. But my quality of life will not be affected," he said. "And Paul is an extraordinary guy — he's kind, funny and down-to-earth. One of the sweetest guys you'll ever want to meet."

"It's difficult to put into words," Gibbs said when asked about his donor. "Thank you for saving my life. I can never entirely repay what you've done for me. But I'll spend the rest of my life doing everything I can."

With the worst behind them, both men are home, tired, but healing and looking forward to getting back on stage.

Poole should go on about his life with no limitations. And the same can be said for Gibbs.

"One of Ryan's kidneys is better than my two ever were," Gibbs said. "I'll be able to have a remarkably normal life, and I couldn't be happier about it."

But he will have to take anti-rejection medications for the rest of his life. "It can be as much as rent for a two-bedroom apartment every month."

Gibbs' twin brother has set up to accept donations and provide information on fundraising activities.

In the meantime, Gibbs is spending time with nieces and nephews. With his new kidney, he once again has the energy to play with them.

"I can't lift them yet. But they've been great," he said. "They've been developing their own system of hugs they can give without hurting me. Right now they're on 'soft hugs.' But they always say, 'When can we give you real hugs?'

"And I can't wait."