When popular Milwaukee radio host Elizabeth Kay learned that the "rock and heart" of her family — her mother-in-law, Camille — was in stage 4 kidney disease around Christmas 2019, it came as a shock. Camille was born with minor kidney issues, but there were no indications that she developed kidney disease, let alone that the disease had progressed to the later stages. Camille was told that if her kidney disease progressed to kidney failure, she would have to start dialysis or receive a kidney transplant to survive.
In the spring of 2020, Camille found out that she was a good candidate for a kidney transplant. She was added to the transplant waiting list in Wisconsin and was told she would have to wait about four years for a kidney. Elizabeth, her husband and nearly 100 close friends and colleagues decided to see what could be done to help Camille sooner, so they filled out the paperwork to see if they could become Camille's living kidney donor. Doctors determined that Elizabeth was the best choice among candidates in the top tier of immediate family being tested. According to the transplant team they have been working with at the University of Wisconsin, Elizabeth's kidney is healthy and "ripe for transplant," which was very welcomed news. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It slowed things down, leaving Elizabeth and Camille waiting for months to learn whether the transplant could happen.
COVID-19 has added another layer of stress to the donation process for the family. Camille is trying to get a transplant as soon as possible, making the testing delays and the wait to find out if Elizabeth is a match that much more difficult. Camille has been putting in a lot of work to slow down the progression of her kidney disease, and thanks to her careful management, she has been able to avoid having to start dialysis. Every test or appointment that gets pushed back brings the worry that she will have to begin dialysis before a transplant would be possible. "We have a loved one who has been given this diagnosis, and we can't even hug her right now because we need to protect her," Elizabeth says. "We're reminded of how precious time is."
Throughout their time waiting to see whether she was a match for Camille, Elizabeth went public about her experience trying to donate an organ. She discusses her journey on her radio show and podcast, providing multiple updates for her listeners along the way. She says the support her listeners have provided "has been overwhelming." People have called into her radio show to share their own "emotional" kidney stories, which has been a source of inspiration and encouragement for her. "This touches people," she says, especially during these very difficult times. Elizabeth also became an Ambassador for the American Kidney Fund during the wait, so she can continue to share her story and advocate for people going through similar situations.
Though she has now learned that she is not a match for Camille, Elizabeth is still on a mission to get her mother-in-law a kidney. When she heard about the paired kidney exchange program, she knew that was the next step she wanted to take to help get a kidney for Camille. She and Camille are very close, and she says Camille has given her so much that "it would be such a gift to be able to do this for her and give her life." Elizabeth and her husband cannot have children, so she believes donating a kidney so Camille can get one is her "purpose." Camille is like "everyone's mom, and to know her is to love her," Elizabeth says.
In January 2021, Elizabeth and Camille finally got the good news they have been waiting for — they were given the green light to enter the paired kidney exchange program. Elizabeth will give a kidney to someone else she is a match for, while a relative or friend of that other person will give a kidney to Camille. Right after she announced the good news on the air, a man called into Elizabeth's show to share his story about how the exchange got him a kidney. Stories like that listener's confirm for Elizabeth that she is making the right decision. She and Camille have been given a Spring 2021 timeframe for the transplant surgery, and Elizabeth is eager to donate her kidney. Getting to save a life, she says, "is pretty cool."
Elizabeth says one of the most important things she has learned during the donation process is that "being healthy is a gift." Whether you are living with kidney disease or are thinking about becoming a living donor, Elizabeth believes that being your own advocate for your health is vital. She also says that potential living donors should reach out and talk to people who have been through it, as that helped her a lot. She offers a final piece of advice: do not be afraid to ask questions, because when it comes to giving the gift of life, no question should be considered off limits.
With a B grade on our State of the States: Living Donor Protection Report Card, Wisconsin is a leader in the nation when it comes to providing protections for living organ donors like Elizabeth. Learn more about Wisconsin's laws, see how your state compares and let your members of Congress know you want them to support living organ donors at livingdonor.KidneyFund.org.