'A mother hen,' early Stanford kidney donor dies at 99

One of Stanford’s first living kidney donors lived a long and fulfilling life with her family.

- By Kim Smuga-Otto

Gary Goodnight, shown here in the 1980s, received a kidney transplant at Stanford in 1965. His mother, Inga Goodnight, was the kidney donor.
Courtesy of Bill Goodnight

Twice Inga Goodnight gave her oldest son, Gary, the gift of life: once when she gave birth to him, in 1938, and again, in 1965, when she donated a kidney to him.

Inga went on to lead an active life with Gary and her other three sons, as well as with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Gary died at age 60 of a stroke. Inga died April 28 of heart failure. She was 99.

Her long life and the fact that she was 51 at the time of her donation mean Inga was likely one of the oldest living kidney donors. “She was a mother hen. She took care of everyone,” recalled one of her sons, Bill Goodnight, a retired wildlife manager for the Idaho Fish and Game Department.

Many unknowns

Today, kidney transplants are established procedures; more than 17,000 were performed in the United States last year. Improvements in surgery and immunosuppressive drugs have increased the number of potential kidney matches. Studies have shown that donors have no increased health risks compared with the general public.

But in 1965, when Gary became the third patient to receive a kidney transplant at Stanford Hospital, many things were unknown. Doctors were still determining proper dosages for the immunosuppressive drugs, and they didn’t know if Gary’s body would reject the kidney or if he would even survive the first year.

While it was known that a person could live with one kidney, no one knew if there would be long-term health impacts for Inga. And unlike modern laparoscopic surgery, with its tiny incisions and short hospital stays, the surgery to remove the Inga’s kidney involved a large incision that cut through abdominal muscles and required a long recovery.

Despite these uncertainties and obstacles, Inga and her family, much like today’s donors, were hopeful and determined.

“There was never a question on her part on being a donor,” said Bill.

Gary Goodnight's son, Torin, with his grandmother, Inga Goodnight, in 1987.
Courtesy of Bill Goodnight

Gary was born in Indianapolis and spent his early years surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. As a child, his kidneys shut down and stopped making urine. As a result, his body retained fluid: Bill remembered how his 8-year-old older brother’s face puffed up. After Gary was hospitalized for a year, Inga and her husband took the chance that a warm, dry climate might be good for his health. They left their extended family in Indiana, and the six of them drove to Arizona with a camper trailer in tow. Seemingly miraculously, Gary’s condition improved.

He remained healthy for over 13 years, during which time the family moved to the San Francisco area. They were aware that Gary’s kidneys could fail again, but also hopeful; in 1955, the first successful kidney transplant was reported.

“Gary tracked the news about transplants,” Bill recalled. “The first successful ones were all identical twins.” Soon, advances in immunosuppressive drugs, as well as a clearer understanding of how to match donors and recipients, led to successful transplants between other relatives. Stanford’s second kidney transplant, in 1964, was from a mother to her daughter. When Gary’s kidneys failed suddenly, in 1965, he became Stanford’s third transplant patient.

Tragedy and transplant

Gary’s kidney failure arrived on the heels of a family tragedy. Six months earlier, his father had been killed in a car accident. As a result of the accident, Inga and another one of her sons, who had been passengers, were in comas for almost two weeks.

It was a difficult and uncertain time for the Goodnight family. Fortunately, the operation went smoothly, and Gary’s new kidney started producing urine right away. The transplant was a success, and the difference for Gary was immediate. “After the surgery, Gary told me he had forgotten how it felt like to be well,” Bill said.

It’s these recoveries that “make transplantation in general such a wonderful field,” said Jane Tan, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Stanford and a physician with Stanford Health Care’s kidney transplant clinic for the past 15 years. “It really transforms their lives,” she added.

After his surgery, Gary was able to return to his hobby of drag racing and rejoin his team for a National Hot Rod Association-sponsored trip to introduce the sport to Australia. Later he lived in England, where he worked as a Lockheed Martin satellite contractor.

Inga lived such a healthy, long life, and that’s what we hope for all donors.

Inga returned to work and cared for her family. She learned to drive — previously she had relied on her husband — and her choice of car, a 1965 Mustang, earned her the nickname “Mustang Sally” from her sons. She took an active role in raising several of her grandchildren.

“Inga lived such a healthy, long life, and that’s what we hope for all donors,” Tan said.

Today there are more than 100,000 people in the United States on the kidney transplant waiting list, according to the National Kidney Foundation, with someone being added to the list every 14 minutes.

Last year, over 40 percent of the kidney donors were live donors, of whom half were relatives of the recipient.

“Kidney donors are just incredibly altruistic humans beings,” Tan said. “It’s a pleasure to work with them.”

Besides restoring Gary’s health, Inga’s donation has had more subtle effects on the Goodnights. Bill said that his family’s experience has inspired him to reach out to others who need transplants. He tells them about Gary’s struggles and the difference that Inga’s donation made for Gary and for the family.

“Kidney transplants have always been a big thing in the Goodnight family,” he said.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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