Georgia sisters give dad and a stranger a kidney and a second chance

Michael McLean's life is full these days.

The Athens 53-year-old restaurant owner is getting ready to celebrate 30 years of marriage to his wife Suzanne, two healthy daughters, and five kidneys.

Yes, five kidneys.

At 53 year old father stands between his two twenty-something daughters.

Michael McClean poses with his daughters Anna Lee McLean (left) and Mary Kate Imler (right). (FOX 5 Atlanta)

"One works, four do not," McLean laughs. "But, yes, they leave them in."  

He knows, because he recently underwent his third kidney transplant.

"It can be overwhelming just to think about," he says.

He was a senior at Auburn University in 1994 when he was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder, Berger's Disease, and told he needed a kidney transplant.

"I was 24, and that first kidney came from my sister, Michelle," McLean says.

That kidney lasted eight years before McLean, then in his early thirties and married with two young girls, had to begin kidney dialysis and the long wait for another one.

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Michael McLean and his daughters

"I was on the list and after two years, I got the call one day and drove down to the hospital and got another kidney," he says.

The second kidney was from a deceased donor.

"It was exciting and a relief, but, there's still some doubt in that, you know, 'How it's going to turn out?'" McLean says.

Anna Lee McLean, now 27 and a fourth-grade teacher in Nashville, and Mary Kate Imler, who is 24 and a UGA Law School student, grew up watching their dad cope with kidney failure.

They would sometimes sit with him while he had dialysis.

Michael McLean

Michael and Suzanne McLean tried to keep their girls' lives as normal as possible.

"We still went on vacations," Imler says. "We still did fun things as a family. Like, it didn't stop him from living his life."

The second kidney lasted 20 years, until Thanksgiving 2022, when McLean started feeling unwell and tired.

"The lab work indicated that there was something definitely going on," he says.

He was now in kidney failure for the third time and would now need yet another transplant.

"As soon as we found out, we're both like, 'All right, where do we go to get tested," Imler says.

Anna Lee McLean went first.

"I turned out to be a match, but, anatomically, I was not the best match," she says. "So, that's where she came in."

Doctors felt Mary Kate Imler was the better match of the two.

The transplant was scheduled for July 7, 2023, at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

"We went down there together," McLean says. "We walked in, they called us back at the same time.  We just walked back to the pre-op together. I was more nervous for her than for me."

Michael McLean

In back-to-back surgeries, one of Mary Kate Imler's kidneys was removed, taken to another operating room, then sewn into her father's abdomen.

Within minutes, the transplanted kidney was producing urine.

"When you come out of surgery, receiving the kidney, you feel so much better because the kidney is working right away," McLean says.

Mary Kate Imler had never had an operation before this transplant.

"The first thing I asked when I woke up from surgery was, 'How's my dad?" she remembers.

Anna Lee McLean says that is when her sister finally broke down.

"She just woke up from surgery, and said, 'Did it work?" McClean says.  "And, we said, 'Yes.' And, she just immediately started crying."

Michael McLean and his daughter Mary Kate Imler.

Dr. Eric Gibney, a transplant nephrologist and program director of the Piedmont Transplant Institute, says he has been struck by how Michael McLean has approached the medical challenges he has faced.

"It's almost hard to believe how joyful his life is," Gibney says.

At the time that McLean's kidneys first failed 30 years ago, Dr. Gibney says there was not a lot of hope in the scientific community that patients like him could live a long, healthy life.

"So, to see this come full circle, where his adult daughter is healthy, and they have this great relationship, and his other daughter, who are also involved with each other, is really just inspiring and joyful," Dr. Gibney says.

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Sisters Anna Lee McLean (left) and Mary Kate Imler (right).

And, Anna Lee McLean, who wanted so much to give one of her kidneys to her dad?

"Immediately, I was like, 'Okay, then what's the next step? For me to donate to someone else,'" she says.

In late August, just seven weeks after her father's transplant, she donated a kidney to a stranger, a woman she has learned is in her thirties, lives 600 miles away, and needed a lifeline.

"Everything that we've gone through as a family because of this is really hard. It's really hard to think that there's someone else out there just waiting," Anna Lee McLean says. "Now, I'm back to normal and giving someone else the chance to have their life back."

Michael McClean walks his daughter Mary Kate Imler down the aisle. (Supplied)

On New Year's Eve, exactly one year after Michael McLean learned he would need a third transplant, he walked Mary Kate Imler, his donor and daughter, down the aisle at her wedding.

"I feel great today," he says.

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Great, and grateful for his daughters who have changed two lives.

"I mean, they're wonderful, wonderful kids," McLean says.