Sisters Share Gift of Life for Nearly 40 Years

(l-r) Claire and Mara

Claire McRae can't skydive or play tackle football, but 37 years after her sister, Mara, donated a kidney to save her life, there's not much she hasn't tried. An executive producer at CNN who started as a tape logger, Claire has produced Larry King Live, Inside Politics with Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw and is currently executive producer for Fredricka Whitfield

As a teenager, however, her health was precarious. Growing up in rural Thomasville, Georgia, doctors weren't sure what to make of Claire's symptoms. Finally, one physician whose own daughter had kidney failure stemming from lupus decided to check out Claire's kidneys. By the time he did, they were near failure and he sent the family 200 miles to Atlanta for treatment. At the time, Grady Hospital was the only place with a dialysis unit and so Claire's dad made the eight hour roundtrip drive three times a week so Claire could have the toxins filtered out of her body. But Claire didn't do well on dialysis and the family knew that transplant was her only option for long term survival. Everyone in the family was tested and Mara turned out to be the best match. "She picked the short straw," laughs Claire, "and I told her, 'give me the good kidney.'"

Mara didn't hesitate. In fact, she says now that it took her all of five seconds to make her decision. Although she was in college at the time and had to work her final schedule around the transplant, she aced the exams and even graduated ahead of time. And she's never looked back. A commercial litigator who went straight from law school to a large firm where she worked for 25 years, Mara recently opened her own practice with a few of the other firm partners. She sailed through two pregnancies and says the only time she remembers that she's living with one kidney is each year when the sisters celebrate the transplant anniversary.

"I would do it all over again. When I think about giving up something I don't need in exchange for a lifetime with my sister, there's just no contest," says Mara. The two are extremely close and as Claire explains, once they got past the "I hate your guts" teenage stage, they became best friends who share many interests in addition to the kidney. Both were English majors who love reading and movies. They don't have too many hobbies and both say they spend lots of time working, but they're clearly passionate about their chosen professions.

Looking back, Claire says once she got the transplant, "It was like night and day. I went from putting one foot in front of the other and basically just existing to truly living. I loved being able to eat whatever I wanted. Right after the transplant, my mom spent many evenings bunking in the nurses dorm and often went on midnight food runs to keep up with my newfound appetite and spare me the hospital fare. Beyond that, I was thrilled to have the energy to do whatever I wanted."

When asked what advice she'd give to potential living donors, Mara has just two words, "Do it."

"I remember a huge sense of relief that something could be done to fix my 5'7", 90 lb sister. I was just relieved, never nervous." She says not to let fear of the unknown prevent anyone from donating, "Get the information and talk to people who've done it. From my perspective, all I can say is 'that's what sisters are for.'"