On Saturday, April 23, Melissia Baker and her son set up an unusual tailgate in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park before a Phillies home game. Instead of a grill or cooler, Melissia brought a billboard truck displaying a video of her son making a plea for someone to donate their kidney to his mom.
"I was encouraged to do this by the gentleman who owns the video truck company, just to get my name and story out there and try to find a living donor," explained Melissia. "I've been waiting 10 years and I felt like I needed to do something different."
If her search is successful, this will be Melissia's second kidney transplant. In 2005, she received a kidney and a pancreas transplant from a deceased donor. Unfortunately, her pancreas failed, taking the kidney with it. "Honestly, I was ashamed that my first transplant failed after seven years," said Melissia. "Even though it was through no fault of my own, I felt like I let my donor family down."
After her first transplant failed, Melissia was placed on the transplant waiting list and began receiving dialysis treatments three nights a week.
"Doing dialysis is a life change," she said. "I have to schedule everything else around [dialysis], whether it's doing something with my son or something simple like going to the grocery store or running errands… it impacts everything that I do."
Even more challenging for Melissia is the impact her kidney disease has on her family, particularly her son.
"I am an adoptive parent and have been raising my son since he was an infant," said Melissia, who started dialysis in February of 2012 and whose son was born in July of the same year. "But this is this the only life that he's known. I'd like for him to be able to experience a life with his mother that is whole and healthy. Because it impacts his activities as well. He knows that if there's an activity at school like an after-school club that maybe he wants to participate in on my dialysis nights, we don't usually try to schedule things on those days."
Although Melissia has never missed a session of dialysis or a doctor's appointment, her health has started to decline in the last two years. In August 2020, she suffered a heart attack that required open heart surgery and kept her in the hospital for 26 days. Since then, her search for a kidney donor has taken on a new sense of urgency.
"Fortunately, I haven't had any lasting effects from [the heart surgery], so I'm still active on the transplant list," said Melissia. "My transplant team still believes I'm a good candidate for transplant and I'm just waiting for the gift of life. I'm waiting for that perfect donor."
That donor can't come soon enough for Melissia, who is anxious to return to some of the activities she could do after her first transplant. During those seven years, Melissia had a full-time job as a human resources administrator and was an active volunteer with both the Red Cross and MANNA food bank. She was also able to become a foster parent and ultimately adopt her son – who is another motivator for her to find a donor.
"It would mean so much to me to be able to really participate with him in his activities," said Melissia. "I push myself as much as I can, but this disease is very demanding… It really does feel like I'm sitting on the sidelines while life passes me by. So, a transplant would mean that I could fully participate in all of the joys that life can bring, including all of the joys in raising a child who is so wonderful and so precious."
Melissia is at the top of the waiting list, but unfortunately there are over 6,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant in the state of Pennsylvania, where she is registered. So, she decided to be more proactive in her search, starting her campaign to find a donor.
With the help of her friends and family, Melissia is sharing her story and information about becoming a living donor through a website, YouTube channel, Facebook account and Instagram account. "I realized that I need to use technology in a way that I had not," said Melissia, "and I'm glad I had enlisted the help of others in that because I realized I needed to let technology work for me in a much more effective way."
She's also created branded items with her website to give out at events, like the Phillies tailgate, including rally towels, pens and t-shirts. While she is not planning additional events with the billboard truck for the summer, Melissia and her family will still be sharing flyers about her search throughout the local community.
In addition to searching for a donor, Melissia hopes to educate people through her campaign about kidney disease and living organ donation and to advocate for legislation that would help protect living donors.
"Legislators need to make sure that living donors have all the protections they need and the support they need to become living donors to the people who have been waiting years, like myself, for an organ," said Melissia. "You don't want someone to be interested in giving an organ and then be discouraged or feel like they can't do it simply because they're worried about not having life insurance or not having health insurance or being penalized and charged a higher rate for health insurance, or not knowing that if they need to recuperate for a while after their donation that their income is not going to be disrupted or disturbed."
Melissia's search for a donor is still ongoing. As the summer winds down, she plans to rev up her campaign again. In the meantime, she will continue to share her story, and encourages others waiting for a donor to do the same.
"Tell as many people as you can that you're looking for a living donor. Don't be afraid. Don't be embarrassed. Don't be ashamed," she advised.
Learn more about kidney transplants and donations, including how to become or how to find a living organ donor, on our website. You can also watch our 2022 Kidney Action Week session on Navigating the Transplant Waiting List.