Young Race Car Driver Raises Awareness About Life-Saving Transplants
Jeannine Williams saw the writing on the wall. It had been nearly 30 years since a hepatitis infection resulted in the need for a liver transplant at age 22. Decades of taking the immunosuppressive drugs required post-transplant had enabled Jeannine to live a full life, giving birth to two children even though doctors had originally predicted she’d survive just five years.
But those same life-saving drugs had taken a toll. In the years since receiving a new liver, Jeannine, 54, had vanquished breast cancer and multiple skin cancers, brought on because her immune system was suppressed. Then in 2018 came the unwelcome news she’d been expecting: Jeannine, from Oakley, California, needed a kidney transplant.
Every single month since her liver transplant in 1989, Jeannine had gotten her blood tested to keep tabs on her organ function. Her kidney function had been declining for years due to the immunosuppressive drugs. “Start looking for a match,” her medical team at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center told her.
Her son, Clayton, a race car driver, didn’t qualify because he was under 18. Her husband, Doug, didn’t qualify because he’d previously had kidney stones. Then there was her daughter, Cierra, 21 at the time, to whom Jeannine issued a firm directive: “Don’t get tested.”
Jeannine didn’t want her daughter to even consider undergoing surgery to donate a kidney to her, but Cierra didn’t listen. Unbeknownst to her mother, she began filling out the forms to start the process of assessing whether she might be a suitable match. “As soon as my mom told us about needing a kidney, I knew it would be me,” says Cierra, a first-grade teacher who is earning her master’s in psychology. “I had no doubts. We are so close that it was the logical step.”
Within weeks, Cierra got confirmation that her hunch was correct: she was a perfect match for her mother. “The doctor said I’m definitely my mother’s daughter,” she says. “I was excited to give my mom back her energy and full-of-life self.”
As Cierra’s mother, Jeannine found it difficult to support her daughter’s decision; she worried about the possibility that something might go wrong during surgery. “I didn’t accept it until the day we walked into the hospital,” says Jeannine. “I kept saying, ‘You can change your mind.’”
Although Cierra says she never wavered, the hospital followed standard protocol to conduct psychological testing to ensure she would have no regrets about her choice. “They ask you weeks and months in advance if you are sure,” says Cierra. “I was very confident the whole way through. My mom was so nervous that it made me feel more confident.”
Undergoing a transplant in the midst of a global pandemic only compounded an already stressful situation. Doug and Clayton dropped off Jeannine and Cierra at the hospital, but they couldn’t be by Jeannine’s side to offer support as Cierra was wheeled away in a hospital gurney.
Fortunately, the surgery went smoothly. It took place at UCSF, where it was performed by the same doctor who had transplanted her new liver 31 years earlier.
There were other reassuring coincidences as well: During their recovery, they found themselves in Room 17, which they immediately interpreted as a good omen. Number 17 has been Clayton’s lucky racing number since he was 7 years old.
Clayton started go-kart racing when he was barely out of kindergarten, working his way to the national level and traveling around the country. As a young teen, he participated in Spec Miata, a type of amateur sports car racing. Last year, he made his professional debut with LAP Motorsports’ MINI Cooper racing team headquartered in Indiana. Closer to home in California, Clayton races at the Sonoma Raceway.
As a fledgling professional race car driver, financial support from sponsors is considered essential to building a career. Clayton began searching for sponsors and discovered CareDx. The company’s mission to offer solutions to improve transplant patient outcomes was a natural fit, allowing Clayton to spread the word about life-saving transplants and the need for post-transplant support through his family’s personal story. The CareDx logo is on the side of the sunflower yellow MINI Cooper that Clayton races. Since being sponsored by CareDx, Clayton’s mom has begun using the AlloCare app, which helps transplant recipients manage their health.
“It’s not always the case that a sponsor showcases a driver’s story so well,” says Clayton. “It’s personal for me. I’m proud to promote their brand.”
Clayton also serves as an ambassador for Donate Life America, helping encourage people to register as organ and tissue donors. Donate Life is dedicated to raising awareness of the shortage of donated organs, eyes, and tissues available for transplant and “developing a culture where donation is embraced as a fundamental human responsibility.”
That mission resonates with Clayton.
Had he been old enough to donate his own kidney to his mother, he would have done so without a second thought. Since Clayton wasn’t eligible, he is beyond grateful that his sister stepped up and proved to be a compatible match. “It was very brave of her,” he says.
Growing up, Clayton found himself extremely protective of his mother. “I always tried to look out for her more than you normally would, helping in any way I could,” he says.
Dropping his mother and sister at the hospital felt surreal. “It was super scary and didn’t feal real,” he says. “As I watched them walk in, it felt crazy that this was happening.”
After surgery, as his mother and sister recovered at home together, he would escort them on “family waddles.” “Going through this experience made our family even tighter than it was,” he says. “We were super close but now we’re even closer. It was an easy transition to rely on each other.”
For Jeannine, receiving a kidney from her daughter has been the epilogue to a long and unexpected journey. She first fell ill when she was 16, and her health deteriorated over the following years. She would throw up so often that she tore a hole in her throat. When she passed out in high school, testing revealed that her liver labs weren’t what would have been expected for someone her age. Day after day, she felt exhausted, like she could sleep for hours on end without feeling rested.
Finally at age 18, Jeannine was diagnosed with hepatitis and told she’d eventually need a liver transplant. Four years later, the day arrived. “I had the transplant, and I was magically all better,” says Jeannine. “My mom said I went in yellow and came out pink.”
The transplant empowered Jeannine to move on with her life. She met her husband and got married; they had Cierra and Clayton at UCSF. As one of the hospital’s first liver transplant recipients to give birth, the delivery room was packed with people. Jeannine welcomed them to observe what she considered a medical miracle.
“They told me I would have five years or so to live,” she says. “Luckily, I’ve had a lot more.”