He couldn't walk before. He couldn't keep any food down before. Now with this new kidney, he should be able to live a very normal life, be able to catch up and walk and run like other kids and go outside and play with them. —Ari Fershtut

SALT LAKE CITY — Three people are recovering after receiving new kidneys. What makes their medical procedure so incredible is the connection they share — living donors who came together as part of a paired transplant exchange.

All three received a kidney last week, including Hayley Fershtut’s 2-year-old son, Beckham.

"The people who have stepped up to save my baby's life, it's been amazing,” Fershtut, of Layton, said through tears.

When Beckham was born, doctors discovered his kidneys did not fully develop and were functioning at just 12 percent of what they should be.

"He had a window of a couple of months that we needed to get this done in order to avoid having to put him on dialysis,” explained Dr. Raoul Nelson, a pediatric nephrologist at Primary Children’s Medical Center.

Since the surgery Sept. 11, the little boy is doing so much better, according to his parents.

"He couldn't walk before. He couldn't keep any food down before,” said Beckham’s father, Ari Fershtut, “and now with this new kidney, he should be able to live a very normal life, be able to catch up and walk and run like other kids and go outside and play with them.”

The surgery was dream come true for Beckham’s parents. Ari Fershtut was going to donate a kidney to his son, but they were not a match.

"The kidney was something that we personally couldn't give to him, and I am so grateful to them that will step up and come to give him something that we couldn't,” Hayley Fershtut said.

The toddler’s kidney came from Kristy Buffington, of Twin Falls, Idaho. The 37-year-old wanted to donate her kidney to her friend Brandy Jess, 40, but last-minute tests showed they weren’t a match.

“So I decided to donate to her, and then we came down (in July) and the final cross-match said we weren’t a match, that the first test was actually wrong,” Buffington said.

They were ready to turn around and go back to Idaho when Buffington said they were approached about the paired exchange program. She told doctors she was willing to do the paired exchange only if there was a guarantee that her friend would receive a kidney. After a couple of weeks, matches were found.

Even though Buffington wasn’t a match for Jess, she’s happy she was able to help a little boy.

“It was really awesome to be able to help this little guy at the same time,” Buffington said. “He’s only 2, so that was pretty cool, too.”

While Ari Fershtut, 32, was not a perfect match for his son, he was a match for Juan Romero, 45, of Wendover, who waited three years for a transplant and had been on dialysis. Both men had the same rare B-negative blood type.

“The doctors say the kidney is working very well,” Romero said.

Now, he has a new lease on life, thanks to people he had never met before.

“I’m just grateful I got to help my son, but also help (Romero) as well,” Ari Fershtut said. “It’s a bonus on top of that. It’s great that I got to be a part of it.”

Their surgery was performed Sept. 12.

Jess' transplant exchange was made possible by Ted Bartling, 51, of Morgan. He is known as the good Samaritan in the exchange because he has no relation to anyone else involved.

“I’m just some guy off the street that had a weird idea that I would go in and see if I could help somebody other than myself,” Bartling said. "I just knew there was someone that matched."

It took six months of testing and looking for a match, and then the hospital called him to say they found someone he could help.

Bartling said he was feeling great six days after donating a kidney. He had no idea who would receive the kidney, but after the surgery he met Jess.

"(She’s) a mother, a wife, and that means the most to me,” he said.

Buffington said her good friend is making progress and the two of them share a much stronger bond, even though Jess didn't receive one of Buffington's kidneys.

“She is kind of having a rough time of it, but she will make it,” Buffington said. “She is an amazing person. She's got a good, positive attitude, so she will get there.”

But Bartling’s gift began a chain reaction that resulted in three people receiving a kidney. His went to Jess, Jess’ friend Buffington was a match for 2-year-old Beckham Fershtut, and his dad, Ari Fershtut, was a match for Romero.

"And that way we were able to build a chain and take two incompatible pairs plus a non-directed donor and transplant three patients," said Dr. Jeffrey Campsen, who performed all three surgeries on the donors.

University Hospital was the location where all the kidney donors had their surgeries, along with two recipients. Primary Children's Medical Center was where the surgery on 2-year-old Beckham Fershtut was performed.

Ari Fershtut said the whole process was a great idea.

“Instead of helping one person, six (people's) lives are affected, and it’s a wonderful blessing,” he said.

Bartling said donating a kidney has been life-changing for him, a chance to give back for what he has.

"We really do have to help each other, to make society better, and we have to give more than we take on occasion, and that is how I got to be here. I wanted to give more than I take,” Bartling said. “It’s such a great feeling, just to help.”

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: spenrod@deseretnews.com