Written by Tiffany French, Living Kidney Donor
I watched my Grandpa Bud on dialysis for the last years of his life, so I knew a little about kidney disease but not a lot. I’d seen first hand the pain and how much of a person’s life it can consume. I remember he had to go to the dialysis center and be hooked up to a machine for hours a day, several days a week. He had to eat a very restricted diet. He was tired and in pain, and couldn't do any of his favorite things. I think most people only live five to ten years once they’re on dialysis, and with my grandpa’s age and other medical conditions, receiving a kidney transplant wasn’t even an option.
It Never Hurts to Ask, Right?In the summer of 2012, my cousin Kim posted on Facebook that a friend of hers, Ace, needed a kidney transplant from someone with type O blood. She wasn’t eligible, so she was asking for donors. While I knew living kidney donation existed, I didn’t seriously consider it as an option until someone asked me to be a living donor.
I began testing and after a longer than expected wait for the results, finally found out that I was approved to donate a kidney. While Ace had also been approved to receive a kidney transplant, a “cross-match” test on our blood didn’t go well, and I was unable to donate to him. Thankfully, not too long after we received the news that we were not compatible, he received a kidney from a cadaver and he seems to be doing well.
After the transplant didn’t work out with Ace, I decided to contact Baylor University in Dallas to start a kidney donation chain. Things went smoothly and two months after first contacting them, I was approved; two weeks after approval they identified a donation chain for me to join.
Joining a Kidney Chain
Kidney donation chains can be confusing. A third of people who need a kidney transplant and have willing donors aren’t compatible with those donors. I had a hard time putting it into words, but according to an article from UCLA Transplantation Services, “It starts with an altruistic donor – someone who wants to donate a kidney out of the goodness of his or her heart. That kidney is transplanted into a recipient who had a donor willing to give a kidney, but was not a match. To keep the chain going, the incompatible donor gives a kidney to a patient unknown to him or her who has been identified as a match, essentially ‘paying it forward.’ A specialized computer program matches donors and recipients across the country.”
In my case, I donated a kidney to a stranger. His sister was willing to donate but wasn’t compatible with him. So, his sister donated to a stranger in California, whose loved one donated to someone in Florida, whose loved one donated to someone in Colorado. It seems complicated but it's actually not. It's really cool because one person can help a bunch of people. Maybe if more people knew about this possibility, it would become more popular.
Going Under the Knife
Photo: All smiles with my surgeon, Dr. Tiffany Anthony, before surgery
Very little about the surgery or my recovery surprised me. The doctors and nurses gave me plenty of information beforehand and of course I did some internet research, too. I had a pretty good idea of how everything would go and what could go wrong, but I was ready. I don’t want to mislead anyone, so I'll be honest about my experience. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re squeamish. I knew before the surgery they would knock me out and put a catheter in my urethra. The thought of bunch of strangers seeing me naked and digging around in my bathing suit areas creeped me out, but I knew it was for a good cause. I threw my pride out the window on the way to the hospital and got over it. I had been warned that the anesthesia could make me nauseous, and it did. Vomiting with a four-inch cut through your stomach muscles is not terribly pleasant. I had many different nurses and doctors checking my incision, measuring my urine levels, asking whether I’d passed gas yet… It’s hilarious when people cheer about a 32-year-old having a bowel movement. There were a couple of surprises, but nothing unmanageable. At one point my whole body was shaking and my heart was racing, I had what they think was a bad reaction to antibiotics. Then, the potassium added to my IV made my hand feel like it was on fire, but I knew going into this that I wasn’t going to feel great. Those problems passed quickly anyways.
In the days before my surgery, people asked me if I was afraid. I probably should have been. I didn’t really believe it would happen until I was lying in the hospital bed in the pre-op room, but even then, I was mostly just excited. There were possible downsides, but I'd thought about this for a long time and I was ready.
I know my decision put added stress on my loved ones, but if one of them needed a kidney, I hope someone would donate for them.
I definitely had my doubts before going in. Maybe I should save the kidney in case someone I love does end up needing one… but if they don’t it would go to waste. Maybe I’ll end up needing the kidney… but I couldn’t really expect anyone to donate to me if I wasn’t willing to donate. Maybe the recipient’s body will reject my kidney… but at least I started a chain, so someone will get help. And anyway, I hear rejection is pretty unusual these days.
Life With One Kidney
Life after the surgery really isn’t all that different. I’m supposed to avoid getting high blood pressure and diabetes to avoid stressing my remaining kidney, but I was pretty committed to a healthy lifestyle before all this started. My mom said a lot of people ask her if I can have kids with one kidney. I could if I wanted to, I would just need to wait a year for my organs to settle into their new locations. The biggest warning they gave me: I’m supposed to avoid contact/extreme sports. Unfortunately my rodeo career is over before it started, but I’ve come to terms with that.
I knew there was a small chance that something could go wrong, but we all have to die eventually. I couldn’t think of a better way to go. I had a chance to do something meaningful and I felt I had to take that chance. A couple of days after the surgeries, I was able to meet my recipient and his family, which was one of the coolest moments of my life. Maybe the best. They are all so sweet and said such nice things.
I learned that Timothy had been on dialysis for five years. He lost his job and hasn’t been able to take his daughter on vacation. He almost died once when his blood pressure got too low. His family said he received many calls about possible donors who ended up not being matches. They weren’t sure they would ever find a donor. Timothy said his leg and foot pain went away the day of the surgery, and my coordinator said the color was back in his skin almost immediately.
Photo: Me, my kidney recipient Timothy Copeland, and his sister Jenn Anderson-Hoover (who was the second donor in our chain)
Giving and Getting
People keep saying I’m selfless for doing this. I’m really not. I get a lot out of it. It makes me so happy to see I’m helping someone. I’m too shy and awkward to be nice and helpful to people I encounter on a day-to-day basis, so I give a stranger a kidney. I’m afraid to talk to people, but I’m not afraid to go under the knife. Go figure. I’m so glad I stuck with this.
I am grateful to Ace and my cousin Kim for setting the events in motion. I didn’t know Ace a couple of years ago, and now I feel very close to him even though I wasn’t able to donate to him. He is such a positive person despite all he has been through. He helps raise awareness about kidney disease and cancer, and performs in concerts to help others.
I also need to thank my friends and family for listening to every boring detail and “vicissitude” over the past couple of years. I thank them for all the flowers, kind words, and visits, especially my mom - who I know was worried but very supportive and helped me at the hospital - and my husband, who has been providing me with all the Braum’s ice cream I've asked for. I’m thankful to the staff at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas and the Simmons Transplant Institute for taking great care of us and putting up with my crabbiness. Finally, I appreciate my company and coworkers for supporting me, sending food, and picking up the slack at work during my recovery.
Photo: Me post-op with flowers from my friend, Katie
Writing this, it has been six days since the surgery, and I’m feeling pretty good right now. Definitely not back to normal. I almost Hulked out on a clementine I was trying to peel earlier and then had to rest for a few minutes. But I can function on a couch-potato level with very little pain. The point of this story is to encourage other people to consider giving in some capacity. You can register to be organ donor, give to a foundation that supports organ donation, walk or volunteer at a Kidney Walk, or maybe even look into altruistic kidney donation (especially at Baylor, they’re top notch). It’s just a day of tests and a couple of weeks off work, which is actually pretty sweet. You need to catch up on House of Cards anyway.
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Tiffany French is a copy editor in the Dallas area. She is married with two dogs, enjoys traveling, and blogs about her volunteering experiences to encourage others to serve their communities and help them get started. You can read her personal blog at dfwvolunteer.com or follow her on Twitter @dfwvolunteer.