‘I could do that:’ Photographer inspired to step up to the plate to become a living kidney donor

Sarah Miknis

“I was back to work within two weeks...”

Wait, what? I lowered my camera from my eye for a moment, and the wheels started turning in my head.

I was covering an event at the Ron and Joy Paul Kidney Center, photographing the outreach efforts of the GW Transplant Institute to conduct kidney health screenings in underserved populations of Washington, D.C. Over the course of a few months in my new job as a photographer for the GW School of Medicine & Health Sciences, I was finding out more and more about health disparities in the new city I called home. D.C. had some of the highest rates of kidney disease in in America. 

I’m a regular blood donor. I registered for a bone marrow transplant list in college. And I’m signed up to be an organ donor. But I had never considered being a live organ donor before I heard Ron Paul’s donor tell her story that day. Two weeks to save someone’s life? I could do that.

I asked the transplant surgeon, Dr. Keith Melancon, for a little more information about donation, and what the chances were of my donating a kidney if I signed up. His response: “Stop by the Transplant Institute for more information. We’ll definitely use your kidney.”

At the Transplant Institute I saw a presentation about living donation that focused on how the surgery would affect me and my future health, if I decided to move forward with it. I was comfortable with the information I had gathered at that point, and I wanted to see if I was a viable donor. I made appointments to start the testing.

It started with bloodwork. Then I had to do a 24-hour urine collection. I will admit it’s a bit strange to keep a jug of your pee in your refrigerator (and drive it to a lab the next day). Next was a full day at the hospital for various testing. After donning a gown and having an IV placed, I had a renal scan to measure the rate that my kidneys filtered my blood. They injected a radioactive substance that went to my kidneys, and I watched a black screen glow with two speckled white orbs. Over the course of 30 minutes, I watched my bladder light up as my glowing kidneys faded. Then, a chest x-ray, EKG, and CT angiogram. After that, I met with the team: my transplant coordinator, a dietician, a financial manager, a social worker and the surgeon. They did more bloodwork—about 20 tubes.

In the coming weeks, I met with an outside nephrologist and a psychiatrist to make sure I understood my own health risks and to be sure I was mentally ready to do this. I didn’t know yet if I was a good candidate for donation. It would be considered by a board of people after they received my test results and recommendations from my appointments. About a month and a half after I started the whole process, I was approved to be an altruistic donor.

In the time between getting approved and finding out I was matched to someone, I didn’t have any doubts that I still wanted to donate. Most of my family was supportive from the get-go, but my sister, who is also my best friend, was not so thrilled. Turns out she had a lot of the same reservations over the donation as most strangers do. Once I informed her about what the surgery would involve and how my life would be with one kidney, she felt much better about it.

I was matched on Nov. 16, 2016, and donated my left kidney (which I named Lefty Lucy) on Dec. 20. The surgery went smoothly. It was painful, but not nearly as painful as I’d imagined. The surgery was laparoscopic, so I had four small incisions on my abdomen, and one 3–4 inch incision in my lower abdomen where they removed the kidney. I was up and walking that evening, and was released from the hospital on the morning of Dec. 22. By Christmas Eve, I felt good enough to put on real clothes and go to my brother’s for a holiday dinner. And within two weeks, I was back at work.

The best part of everything was that the surgery was a success for my recipient. I had the pleasure of meeting Jose in early January, about three weeks after our surgeries, and he is a beautiful person. I have no regrets donating my kidney to him. I would do it again if I could. 

When I tell people about my donation, they always want to know why. Why would I do that for a complete stranger? And my answer is pretty simple: I had two, and I didn’t need both. Why not save a life? 

The American Kidney Fund’s “Step Up to the Plate” campaign encourages people to register to be organ donors and to learn more about living kidney donation. Learn more here.

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About the Author

Sarah Miknis

Sarah Miknis is a photographer in the DC area. She has a passion for dogs and craft beer.

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