When I decided to donate my kidney, it wasn’t much of a decision-making process, but more like a tap on the shoulder.
I read a newspaper article about how kidney donations help desperate families, and I thought about my late husband. He died from ALS in 2014, and it would have meant the world to me to have more time together when he was healthy. The thought of prolonging another family’s time with their loved one really stuck with me. I thought, “I can do that,” and I called a transplant center the next day.
Even though I’m a doctor, I initially found the process of donating confusing and disorganized. After a series of twists and turns, I finally wound up working with Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, about 580 miles from my home in rural Unaka, North Carolina.
I went back and forth between Tulane and Unaka for testing over nine months, and on August 23, my surgery was finally scheduled. I decided to undergo a non-directed kidney donation, which meant I did not know the person who would receive my kidney.
For the most part, my friends and family were supportive of my decision, but nervous. One coworker told me she never thought I would pass all the tests. Everyone was concerned for my wellbeing, but I was determined. At the time, I was just a few weeks shy of my 65th birthday, and I was happy that someone my age could still donate.
The day before the surgery the nurses at Tulane took over 20 vials of my blood. It made me queasy, but I felt only a twinge of nervousness. The next day I was ready for the surgery, and I had a few friends with me for support (we called ourselves the “kidney posse”).
When I woke up from the three-hour procedure, my first thought was, “oh shit.” My friend says I demanded morphine. The surgery was harder on my body than I expected, and I was in a lot of pain. It took me about two months to fully recuperate, but it was worth it.
About a week after the operation, something special happened. I had the opportunity to meet Rhonda, the woman who received my kidney, and her husband Paul. About 30 years prior, Rhonda was diagnosed with a bacterial kidney infection that left irreversible damage. In 2015, her kidney began to rapidly decline, and she was put on hemodialysis for over seven months.
On the day of our meeting, I walked into a conference room where Rhonda was standing with her husband and hospital residents. She immediately hugged me and wouldn’t let go, and I started to cry. The realization of what happened between us suddenly felt so real.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she said as she handed me flowers. “It’s hard to say ‘thank you’ for what you’ve given me. To me, it’s not enough.”
I assured her “thank you” was enough for me, but she continued. “You’ve given me something I’ve wanted for the last 30 years,” she said. “My last year was a living hell—until you saved me.”
The emotional intensity of our meeting took my breath away. Based on my experience, I recommend kidney donation to everyone. I think people want to donate, they just aren’t aware it’s a possibility. Rhonda’s husband Paul—who wasn’t a match for his wife—is going through the process to donate his kidney to a stranger to continue the chain.
Many people tell me I am a hero or a saint, but I don’t think that’s true. I tend to downplay the donation and say, “Aw, gee shucks, it was nothing.” But that’s not true either. It was not heroic, it was not saintly, but it sure was damn awesome.