In May, I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to donate a kidney to someone who needed one, literally to save a life. When I started on this journey, I thought the life my kidney would be saving was my Uncle Mike’s. But, in the end, through a long story I am going to tell you here, my left kidney (see 3D image at right) has a new home in a woman named Linda in Ohio, someone I never knew before. And one of the lives that was changed forever has been mine.
Uncle Mike needed a kidney transplant because his kidneys were in failure from Type 1 diabetes, and he was told by his doctors where he lives in Ohio that the best outcome for this procedure would be a live donor. I was tested but unfortunately was not a tissue match for Uncle Mike. But there is this amazing thing in the world of kidney transplantation called an “exchange.” I was asked if I would consider donating a kidney to a stranger in exchange for someone else donating to Uncle Mike. Here we are after our successful surgeries. It is like magic how they connect people who need kidneys (called recipients) with people who are willing to give kidneys (called donors). In my case, the magician who made it all happen was Robin, the transplant nurse. Here she is.
First it was a six person chain — three donors giving to three recipients. By the end, I had the honor of being in the second largest chain this transplant center has ever done — 12 of us — six donors and six recipients.
You may be wondering what a person has to do to be a kidney donor. Well, for one thing, you have to pee a lot. I gave LOTS of urine samples in big orange jugs. Also, the process involves a fair number of blood draws. I also met with a psychologist, a social worker, a nephrologist (kidney specialist), and a surgeon, and I took three hours of classes to learn about the procedure. I also had a CAT scan and an EKG.
Aside from all the medical testing, there is the important matter of laying in emotional support. My daughter, who has excellent question asking skills, came with me for the first round of appointments and tests. I also had strong support from my husband, son, aunt, uncle, cousin, parents, and business partner. It would have been impossible for me to do something like this without being surrounded by so much love and encouragement. Thanks everyone!
Now a word about money. On the medical side, my entire donation was paid for by my recipient’s medical insurance. I also thankfully received a grant from the Living Kidney Donor Association that paid for hotel, airline flights, food, and car rental expenses. Having that designated American Express card took away so much stress.
In our 12 person chain, I was the only out-of-state person; the other 11 people were all from Ohio where my uncle lives. Our surgeries were conducted at the Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. It does about 400 kidney transplants every year.
On the morning of my surgery, I sat in meditation for about an hour and a half. I felt no fear that morning partly because I’ve had several other successful surgeries before and also because, although this was a major operation, I felt prepared and ready. At this point, I had not yet met Linda, the woman who had been selected to receive my kidney. I had started calling it “the Colorado kidney” to help its transition out of me and into her. I got ready to let it go. I kissed my husband and then the next thing I knew I woke up and my recipient’s husband, who had donated one of his kidneys to someone else in the chain two weeks earlier, was sitting by my bed crying and saying thank you. My surgery took 3 hours and was done laproscopically. I was surprised that the main incision was done in the front of my body and not from my back. While I was undergoing the procedure, people all across the country were holding me in their hearts, thoughts, prayers, and mindful intentions. My Facebook page testified to that as did images such as this one that captured a display back in my office in Colorado. I felt held.
I stayed in the hospital for three days during which time I walked many rounds of the transplant floor in spite of having a pain pump and feeling nauseous. I passed Linda’s room but wanted to respect her privacy so didn’t pop in until she reached out to me. What was that like? It was kind of surreal and anti-climatic. When I talked to her it was just like talking to someone you meet for the first time. I didn’t even think about how an organ that had been in me was now inside her. In the beginning of post-op, recipients tend to feel better because they have been living with shutting down kidneys and many have been on dialysis. As soon as they get a functioning organ, they “pink up” and immediately get more energy. Donors, however, feel worse but, having said that, I made a good recovery and was off pain meds except for Tylenol within days. My biggest issue was to stay fully hydrated. That has meant drinking lots and often.
Here is a picture of Linda, my recipient, and me a couple of weeks after our surgeries.
Speaking of drinking, I was told I would need to avoid drinking alcohol for six months after the surgery and should consider adopting a plant-based diet because meat digestion is hard on kidneys and I would be adapting to having just one. To prepare for this regimen, I went on a beer and burger binge the week before I flew to Ohio! Since the surgery, I have done fine as a tee-totalling vegetarian. That has been my personal choice.
Before leaving the hospital a few of the members of my chain got together for this group photo. Someday we want to have a reunion. I can’t wait!
After one night in a hotel, where I slept for the first time in four days, I went to my aunt’s and uncle’s house for three weeks of rest and healing. For the first time in my life I was able to disengage from responsibilities. I totally disconnected from work and, although I felt homesick at times, I committed myself to focusing all my energy on being in the experience of relaxing. It helped that where I was living in beautiful Ohio farm country was a dead zone for cell service! I appreciated every single day of doing absolutely nothing other than recovering. It was a time of blessings and zero stress.
Being so preoccupied with the idea of kidneys, I saw them everywhere I went, including this one in a water puddle.
When I returned home to Colorado I was careful to ease back into my real estate practice with a few part-time days and what really helped me was six weeks of MealTrain meals prepared with love by friends, family, and community people. I initially held back from participating in the many activities I’m usually involved in to give myself time to deal with the tiredness that is the main symptom kidney donors experience. We’ve lost an adrenal gland after all! My only other post-op symptom was an infection in my incision site, but my husband and a local doctor who has had experience with transplants got me through that. I sleep deeply every night. I am happy to be back with my dog. My real estate business has been very busy this summer, for which I’m thankful, and I’ve been surrounded with positivity.
What was the best part about being a kidney donor?
Realizing that there are people out there who selflessly give to each other no matter what their differing belief systems might be. There is kindness all around.
What was the worst part?
No baths for six weeks. Baths are a necessary relaxation ritual for me.
What about being a donor surprised me the most?
How easy it was.
Here’s what I would like to say to anyone reading this who might be thinking about being a kidney donor: I know people like myself who have donated and I know people who have lived with one kidney. I know resources. Here’s one you can check out to find out about kidney donations https:/www.donatelife.net
Don’t wait to give. There are so many people on lists and in line. You don’t have to be related to someone; one of the men in our chain was an altruistic donor. He wasn’t related to any of the other 11 of us. He wanted to do it, so he did.
This experience was such a gift to me in so many ways that I can’t articulate. What I did was easy — give away an organ — and my life is the richer for it. My main takeaway from the experience is that there is such goodness out there and I was privileged to be a part of it.