Searching for a life-saving kidney -- and finding the kindness of strangers

(CBS News) ANDERSON, S.C. - A couple in South Carolina has been desperately seeking an organ donor. They haven't found one yet. But they did find something else: a whole lot of friends they never knew they had, as we learned "On the Road."

Larry Swilling and his wife Jimmie Sue have been happily married 56 years. So happily, in fact, that Larry has now come to realize the downside of loving someone so much you can't live without them.

You can't live without them.

Larry and Jimmie Sue Swilling
Larry Swilling and his wife Jimmie Sue. Jimmie Sue needs a kidney donor and no one in the family is a suitable match, so Larry has taken to the streets to try to find one. CBS

"She's my heart," he said.

Heart has never been an issue for these two.

What's always been lacking is a kidney. Jimmie Sue was born with only one, and now that one is shot. She needs a transplant -- but neither her husband, nor anyone tested in her family, is a suitable match.

If you are interested in learning more about being an organ donor for Mrs. Swilling or for the nearly 100,000 other people who are waiting for a new kidney, please contact the Medical University of South Carolina Transplant Center: 1-800-277-8687.

Jimmie Sue is trying to get on a donor list, but the wait is about two or three years long and that's for a kidney from a deceased donor. Transplant patients who get their kidneys from living donors tend to live longer.

Which is why Larry decided to try a completely radical approach to securing a kidney: Asking for it, from total strangers.

"I don't care what people think," Larry said. He tells his wife, "I'm going to get you a kidney."

And on out on the street, wearing a signboard -- "Need kidney 4 wife" -- he's not shy in asking passersby: "I sure could use your kidney."

Never mind that most people won't give panhandlers their pocket change, let alone their vital organs. For the last couple weeks Larry, at 77, has been walking all over his hometown of Anderson, S.C. -- and the surrounding towns -- basically begging for a kidney.

He didn't really think it would work. But, he said, "I'm trying. I had to do something."

It was really just a way to not feel helpless, which is why he was a surprised as anyone when the phone rang. Repeatedly.

"I'm willing to donate a kidney for your wife," one caller said on voicemail.

"I'd like nothing more than to help you out," said another.

Believe it or not, over the last few days the phone hasn't stopped ringing. Hundreds of people who either saw his sign -- or heard about it -- have volunteered. As one volunteer put it, "I've got two, and I only need one."

It's too early to tell if Larry has found a match for his wife, but at this point he's almost certainly recruited enough volunteers -- and raised enough awareness -- to save someone.

That's fine by Jimmie Sue.

"If I get a kidney, fine. If I don't, I hope someone else does," she said.

But it's not good enough for Larry.

And that's why Larry is still out there, appealing to the kindness of strangers -- for the love of his life.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, e-mail us.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.