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According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK), the VA currently cares for around 600,000 Veterans with kidney disease, 40,000 of which have kidney failure.1 Despite the high number of Veterans receiving treatment for kidney failure, only an estimated 160 kidney transplants are performed annually through the VA.2 This means most Veterans who experience kidney failure do not get the opportunity to receive a life-changing transplant.
Donor Outreach for Veterans (DOVE) Founder and Executive Director Sharyn Kreitzer is dedicated to changing this.
What is DOVE?
DOVE is a community-directed Veteran-centric kidney transplant outreach program that Sharyn Kreitzer started in 2020 to connect potential living kidney donors with the Veterans who need them.
"This is a work of love," said Kreitzer. "I've spent many years working with transplant programs and at a VA medical center. There is a tremendous opportunity to mobilize Veteran support within the military and outside of it. Many people believe in supporting our Veterans. What better way to help than giving a life-saving organ."
With over 100,000 people waiting for a kidney, many of whom are Veterans, Kreitzer hopes DOVE can bring awareness to kidney donation and inspire people to step up as living donors.
"Most people only think of living donation when a family member or friend needs a kidney. We have an opportunity to engage more of the public through community-directed approaches. People don't need to know who they're donating to but it's human nature to want to feel a connection to your recipient," Kreitzer said. "That's what I'm doing—connecting potential donors with the people who need transplants.”
Kreitzer also helps the donor navigate the transplant system, ensuring that their decision to donate is financially neutral to them.
"I have the good fortune of screening prospective donors. Hearing why they feel compelled to donate is so touching. Some donate on behalf of someone who lost their life while serving,” Kreitzer said. “Others wanted to serve but didn't and felt guilty. They heal by donating to someone who did serve."
Are you interested in becoming a living donor? Take "Becoming a Living Donor", our free online course designed to teach you everything you need to know about donating a kidney.
According to NIDDK, the percentage of Veterans with kidney disease is around 34% higher than the general population.1
"Extensive research shows Veterans are overrepresented in the prevalence of kidney disease when compared to people who did not serve," Kreitzer said. "Many Veterans have been exposed to toxins and chemicals that lead to cancer and kidney disease later in life. Others come from backgrounds with higher prevalence of hypertension and diabetes which often leads to kidney disease."
Sadly, there are many barriers to transplantation that Veterans face, one being the limited number of VA transplant centers in the country.
"Not all Veterans are treated in a VA, but those who do are encouraged to go to one of the nine VA transplant centers in the country," Kreitzer said. “The travel involved in getting to one of those centers can be an obstacle."
Another issue Veterans face is asking for help.
"Veterans have a ‘help others’ mindset and feel uncomfortable asking for help. I help them work through it." Kreitzer said. "By raising awareness and sharing their individual story, they may help other Veterans waiting. Occasionally one has a successful outreach campaign that brings multiple donors forward and another registered Veteran will also get a kidney transplant.
With DOVE's help, over 30 Veterans have received life-saving transplants so far.
"Many of our Veterans can't believe someone would donate simply because they want to help a Veteran. They're touched that the community cares for them," Kreitzer said. "I can't guarantee they'll get a kidney transplant, but I can promise they won't feel alone. That means the world to them because CKD and dialysis can be incredibly lonely.”
Are you struggling to find a living donor? Take "Finding a Living Donor," our online course that provides tools to help you share your story to find a living donor.
Leading by example
Kreitzer hasn't stopped at creating this incredible program. She's also a kidney donor!
"I've always considered living donation since I've worked in this field for so long but I wasn't able to do it before 2023. My children were finally old enough and away at summer camp while I went through the surgery and recovery," Kreitzer said. "I know how extensive the donor evaluation process is, so I knew it would be safe. I've also seen the impact donors make on the recipient and for themselves. I will take the joy I experience from donating with me forever. I may be a transplant professional, but I always put living kidney donors first because I am so proud of that fact.”
Kreitzer donated to a member of another community-based organization called Renewal which mentored DOVE.
“I wanted to donate to someone in their community. In return, someone from their organization donated to a Veteran,” said Kreitzer. “It was a symbolic way to thank them for mentoring me and elevating the idea that communities help each other."
Now, Kreitzer can personally connect with potential donors, having gone through it herself.
"I want people to ask me questions about living donations. Now, I can share my own experience," said Kreitzer. "To donate to a Veteran, call 551-449-8319 or visit dovetransplant.org. I appreciate the National Kidney Foundation providing this platform to raise awareness."
At the National Kidney Foundation, we believe that everyone who needs a kidney should get a kidney. You can help make that happen. Tell Congress to improve transplant equity.
1“Support for Veterans with Kidney Disease.” VA News, 17 May 2023, news.va.gov/119226/support-for-veterans-with-kidney-disease/.
2Butler CR, Wightman A, Richards CA, et al. Thematic Analysis of the Health Records of a National Sample of US Veterans With Advanced Kidney Disease Evaluated for Transplant. JAMA Intern Med. 2021;181(2):212–219. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.6388
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