Chain reaction: Giving my kidney to a stranger

My life changed when I watched a “60 Minutes” segment on living kidney donation in 2007. I had two healthy kidneys, but really only needed one. I decided then that I wanted to donate my kidney to save someone’s life.

The segment pointed to a website that would match living kidney donors with people on the waiting list, but it felt more like a popularity contest than a way to do a good deed for a stranger. But there wasn’t much other information for someone like me, who was willing to make what’s called a “non-directed” donation of one of my kidneys.

I called a major hospital in New York City that performs transplants and told them I wanted to give my kidney to a stranger. They performed a battery of tests, including psychological. Why would I want to give my kidney to a stranger when a family member might need it in the future? My response: If more people donated kidneys to strangers, we wouldn't need to hoard them for future family emergencies. Why would I put myself through all the pain of surgery? My response: The pain I would endure was a small price to pay to see someone be able to live a full life, free from dialysis.

I did have to make some changes when all my blood work came back. My liver enzymes were high, so I improved my diet and began to exercise. After a few months, everything was in normal range so my kidney was good to go, and I felt better and healthier than ever. The hospital began looking for a match for my kidney.

I learned that the hospital wanted to use my kidney to set up several simultaneous “paired” donations, to help as many people as possible instead of just one. It took months, and the wait was frustrating for me. Finally, in June 2008—six months after I was cleared to donate—I was told they had found a match.

The surgery was scheduled for July and would include three patients who had willing but incompatible donors, and one patient from the waiting list.

One big issue non-directed donors go through is how to deal with the objections of the people who love them. I found that the closer I got to the donation date, the louder their objections became. "What happens if you get in an accident and your only kidney pops??" or "What happens if your child needs a kidney and you've already given it to a STRANGER?!" Here are a few common questions and answers.

What happens if you get in an accident/suffer from renal failure/pass out in a third-world country and have your kidney harvested by a band of black market organ thieves??

If I lose my remaining kidney for any reason, as a donor I am first on the list for a replacement kidney. Think of it as an insurance policy against future kidney loss, with the added bonus of helping someone live a healthier life.

What if your child or some other family member needs a kidney, but you've already donated yours to a stranger?

I would rather take a near 100 percent chance at helping someone today, than hoard my kidney in the slight chance a family member might need one someday. Hopefully, in the unfortunate event that someone in my family someday needs a kidney, someone else will look at my experience as a donor and step up. We can't live our lives wondering what may happen, while watching others suffer.

You have two kidneys for a reason.

There are lots of things in our body we don't "need"—tonsils, adenoids, appendixes, hair on our heads. Our bodies are amazing in their ability to cope with physical deficiencies. When one kidney is removed, the remaining kidney begins to increase in size. In six to eight weeks, it will have grown up to 80 percent bigger, more than big enough to handle the job.

Why are you doing this? What is your problem??

The idea that I could help someone in such a profound way was very compelling to me. We chase ridiculous goals, like wealth, beauty and power, without realizing what is really important. Money, as I know all too well, is fleeting. Beauty fades. Power corrupts. There is no downside to helping someone live a healthy life.

The surgery went smoothly. There was pain, of course, and other side effects of surgery that I had to endure. It's amazing that less than 48 hours after donating a kidney, I was walking around like almost nothing had happened.

Less than two weeks later, I went back to New York City for a press conference at the hospital—and the opportunity to meet the person who had received my kidney. It felt like Christmas and a blind date rolled into one.

It was very emotional meeting Barbara Asofsky, the recipient of my kidney. We hugged for about a minute when we first met, and then I met the rest of the people involved in the surgery. My decision to donate a kidney meant that four patients were able to get transplants that day. That is a great feeling, and we will be forever linked by this experience.

And I'm endlessly grateful to Barbara for taking care of my kidney for the next few decades, rent free...

Anthony DeGiulio and his kidney live upstate in Red Hook, New York, along with his lovable cat, Leonardo.

Read a blog post about the woman who received Anthony’s kidney. [Link]

Posted: | Author: Anthony DeGiulio

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