AKF Ambassador recounts the stress of receiving a transplant during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust everyone across the country into situations they never imagined, and it has been no different for AKF Ambassador Nichole Jefferson of Dallas. Aside from being an Ambassador, Nichole is heavily involved in the kidney community at all levels, including serving as president of Home Dialyzers United and as a member of the Texas Chronic Kidney Disease Task Force. As someone very educated about kidney disease, she knew that if her first kidney transplant were to fail, she would have to prepare for a return to dialysis or a search for a second transplant. Last year, Nichole’s doctors told her that time was coming.

Nichole’s first transplanted kidney started failing a few years ago, and she and her doctors had been planning to get her back on dialysis by July 1, 2020 if her numbers did not improve. She was on the transplant waiting list in Dallas, as well as in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, but she was fully prepared to dialyze at home again once July 1 rolled around.

At 2 a.m. on April 22, 2020—right in the middle of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic—Nichole got a call from a number she didn’t recognize and almost didn’t answer. Her daughter convinced her to pick up the phone, which turned out to be good advice because the person on the other end was calling to let Nichole know there was a kidney available for her.

The kidney offered to Nichole was suboptimal, meaning it was not the best kidney available, but it was the one available for her at that moment. She remembered, “They asked if I still wanted it and I had to think for a little, but then I said OK.”

Time was of the essence, as it is for everyone who gets the call letting them know there is a kidney waiting for them. Nichole needed to travel from Dallas to Des Moines, Iowa within six hours. An “angel medical flight” was arranged for her, and an ambulance took her to a small regional airport to catch the plane. “I thought the kidney was already there, but they were waiting for it to come to Des Moines from Washington state.”

The successful surgery was a relief, but due to COVID-19 precautions, Nichole’s daughter could not be by her side as she recovered in the hospital. Nichole had to stay in Des Moines for a month for follow-up appointments, so her daughter joined her once she was released from the hospital.

“I was excited about getting the transplant and totally avoiding dialysis, but I was nervous about COVID-19 because there were so many things we didn’t know about the coronavirus back in April. I was terrified going to the hospital,” Nichole recalled. “I was also thinking, ‘What if this transplant has COVID-19?’ ‘ What if I go to the hospital and someone there gives me COVID-19?’ ‘ What if I leave the hospital and I can’t control my elements as well as I can in Dallas? ‘What will happen to me if I get COVID-19 as a two-time transplant recipient who is on antirejection medicines?’ Receiving a transplant during the pandemic built up some anxiety for me.”

Nichole used to live in Des Moines so she reached out to her old therapist to meet and discuss her anxiety about getting a kidney during the pandemic. Most of her friends are transplant and dialysis patients so she also had the comfort of speaking with them during her most stressful times.

Nichole thankfully never caught COVID-19 and her kidney is doing really well today. While she endured more stress and anxiety than she imagined pre- and post-transplant, she is happy to have persevered and end up healthy.

Ben Shlesinger is the associate director of government relations at the American Kidney Fund.

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Ben Shlesinger

Ben Shlesinger is the associate director of government relations at the American Kidney Fund.

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