Obituary: Martha Larkin Komm / Co-founder of kidney foundation and energetic fund-raiser

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So profoundly and positively did Martha Larkin Komm affect people that her husband has found himself extending condolences since his wife died last Tuesday in their Mount Washington home.

"They obviously had lost someone unique and irreplaceable in their lives, someone who meant a great deal to them because she was so genuine," Alan L. Komm, her husband of 36 years, said yesterday. "She had basically no pretense and consequently related to each person in a unique way."

He attributed his wife's appreciation for life to her suffering with grace through more than half a century of kidney problems brought about by birth defects. She turned that struggle inside out in 1977 when she co-founded the National Kidney Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.

"She learned not to have pretenses because life was so precious to her because she spent her whole life living on the edge of death," her husband said.

In the end, it wasn't a kidney problem but a four-year battle with colon cancer that ended her life at age 58.

As co-founder of the kidney foundation, Mrs. Komm leaves a legacy as an impassioned force for kidney research, patient services and public awareness. Her fellow co-founder, retired Alcoa executive John S. Harrison, 93, who died in July, had no personal or familial connection to kidney disease but became involved because he was a family friend of Mrs. Komm through the Church of the Ascension in Oakland.

Likewise, Mrs. Komm's passion affected Bruce Bowden of Fox Chapel, who knew the couple through the University Club and, like Harrison, had no connection to kidney disease. Before he knew it, Mr. Bowden was serving on the local board and as its chairman, and then on the national board and subsequently as chairman of the New York-headquartered organization. Today, he serves as general counsel on a voluntary basis.

"She was a really great person ... who had tremendous wit, energy, intellect -- just a thoroughly engaging person with a lot of charm. She was a person with great commitment to causes and one with a great faith," he said.

That commitment and faith served her through a lifetime of medical problems.

From age 5, Mrs. Komm suffered from kidney problems. She was one of the first patients to receive a kidney transplant at Presbyterian University Hospital in 1983 after surgeon Dr. Thomas Starzl pioneered use of the new immunosuppression drug cyclosporine. She received a second transplant in 1998.

After a childhood that included many hospital stays, Mrs. Komm entered adulthood with strong determination. In her early 30s, one kidney infection too many resulted in dialysis at West Penn Hospital's experimental unit for the next seven years.

During that time, her husband recounted, she took charge of her care, putting in her own blood access needles, reviewing her charts and making such on-point suggestions that doctors asked if she was a nurse, nurses asked if she was a doctor and one doctor wondered if she was a lawyer.

During this period, she co-founded the foundation and made presentations to charitable foundations, corporations and individuals that resulted in $300,000 in startup funding. This year, the foundation will give more than $1 million to projects to promote kidney health in Western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.

After her first transplant, Mrs. Komm earned a degree in psychology and management at Chatham College, competed in swimming at the International Transplant Games and became a manager of fund development at Allegheny General Hospital.

She directed a yearly series of United Way campaigns that always exceeded their goals. She also hosted one of her church's weekly home groups for 22 years. Mrs. Komm loved hosting dinner parties and inevitably, wherever the gathering, had an instinct to be the life of the party, her husband said.

"Basically, she was extremely determined, optimistic and could always, always rise to an occasion no matter how she was feeling," he said. "I can look at pictures of an event or a party and all you see is her positive, outgoing personality even though I know in some cases it was all she could do to get up and get there."

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a brother, Jonathan Larkin of Georgetown, Colo.

Services will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. in the Church of the Ascension, followed by a reception in the parish hall.

The family suggests memorial donations to the National Kidney Foundation of Western Pennsylvania Inc., 555 Grant St., Suite 317, Pittsburgh 15219, or the Church of the Ascension, 4729 Ellsworth Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.

Arrangements are by William Slater & Sons Inc., Mount Washington.


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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