The gift of life: giving a kidney to a stranger

Up until December 2015, I didn’t know much about kidney disease, dialysis or transplants. My hometown newspaper ran an article about a Boston-area woman searching for a kidney transplant, and several of her coworkers had begun testing to see if they were a match. Really? An unrelated person can donate a kidney to someone? The thought had never crossed my mind.

I was deeply touched by her story and will to survive. Even though I live 3,000 miles away, I contacted the woman’s hospital and began the donor evaluation process. Since she was sensitized (meaning her body might be more likely to reject a kidney because of antibodies she produces) they started me off with a blood test for crossmatching. I was sent a kit of vials to fill with blood samples, which I did, and returned them to the hospital. Meanwhile, I educated myself about kidney transplant by watching videos and reading about peoples' experiences.

Two weeks later I learned that I was a positive crossmatch, which in the world of kidney donation, is not good. It meant her body would reject my kidney. Disheartened, I decided to give it a week and see if I still felt any interest in kidney donation. After a few days I began to wonder if someone closer to home could use a kidney. I googled three words—"Oregon kidney donor”—and after websites of area transplant centers, a name popped up: Scott Warren. The link brought me to Living Kidney Donor Search.

I read about Scott, what caused his kidneys to fail, and how dialysis was keeping him alive but a transplant would be much better. His Facebook page had more updates and I contacted Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center to begin my official testing to see if I could donate a kidney to Scott. It took two months from start to finish, beginning on February 1 with me tracking my blood pressure and participating in a phone interview, and ending with some good news. In between there were many tests, blood and urine samples, and meetings to be sure I was physically ready to donate a kidney.

I did have some fears along the way. Would there be a scar? Yes, there would. I discovered previous donors thought of it as a small price to pay to save someone's life. Would I have to quit working? For a time, yes—the body needs to heal. But I was told that after donation I would be back at work again.

"The only thing you can't do after donating a kidney, is donate a kidney," my transplant nurse Laurie Pharr told me.

Long-term health problems? I asked the nephrologist about this, as well as joining a Facebook group for kidney donors. I believe there are no major lifestyle changes that need to be made post-donation, and follow-up appointments with the doctor will be important. You can opt out of donation at any time up until surgery. I tried to be objective and gather all the information I could. I felt ready to proceed with donation if all went well.

On April 1 I got a very exciting phone call—I was healthy enough to donate a kidney and I was a good match with Scott! Up until then I had left occasional messages or questions on his Facebook page, but we didn't know each other. Soon he received the good news that we were approved for a transplant. There were tears of joy for both of us and our surgeries were set for May 9, 2016.

If you are considering donating a kidney, start by learning all you can about the process, and also about kidney disease and the effect dialysis has on a person's quality of life. The need for living kidney donors is so great! Consider if you were in their shoes, or in that dialysis chair—would you want someone to help you back to a normal life? I realized early on that this is a monumental gift to ask of someone, to endure pain and inconvenience to benefit a loved one, or even a stranger. But I weighed the inconvenience versus the new life a living kidney donation would give to a man who had no other option, and for me, the decision was made. I wouldn't say I'm looking forward to the pain and recovery from surgery, but I've heard it said that the love we have for one another can be measured by the amount of pain we are willing to endure for someone else.

There is no compensation for the donor, but all transplant-related costs are covered by the recipient's medical insurance. Actually there is a form of compensation—the joy of knowing you have helped save the life of a fellow human being. I have plenty of support, the hospital performs many kidney transplants, and I am thrilled to be able to share a portion of my good health to help free another person from the chains of dialysis, and on to a fuller, more enjoyable life.

Stephanie is fundraising to help kidney patients who need assistance from the American Kidney Fund, and you can, too! Host a tailgate party, run a race, plan a card night, or host a percentage night at a restaurant. Become a part of KIDNEYNATION and start fundraising your way today. The money you raise will help thousands of patients in the United States access the health care they need to battle kidney disease.

Posted: | Author: Stephanie Holladay

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