By Lora Wilson
“I would consider donating for someone in my family or a close friend, but why would anyone donate a kidney to a stranger?” This was the most common response I received when I told friends and family that I had decided to donate my kidney to a stranger.
We are known as “anonymous living donors” in the government reports. Sometimes the media calls us “non-directed” or “altruistic” donors, and even “heroes.” I prefer the not-so-politically-correct name, “Good Samaritan” donor, a reference to the well-known biblical story about the person who stopped to help a traveler in need, after others passed him by. Good Samaritan donors do not know any particular recipient, but decide to donate to a stranger because it's the right thing to do. I became a Good Samaritan donor in 2006, but I admit to first passing a couple of people who were waiting on the road to transplantation.
When my husband Robb received a kidney/pancreas transplant in 1999, I didn't even think about being his donor. I didn't know that it was a possibility. In less than six months, he went from transplant evaluation to hemodialysis to home peritoneal dialysis and ultimately to a successful multi-organ transplant. A family we've never met agreed to share their loved one with a stranger. At that time, we didn't personally know anyone else who had a transplant, anyone who had been a donor nor anyone who was waiting for the gift of life.
That all changed after we joined Team Pittsburgh, our local team for the NKF US Transplant Games, and started a local kidney support group. We became acquainted with dozens of people who were battling chronic kidney disease, including Deidre, an African American dialysis patient in her early 40s who needed to lose a significant amount of weight to be listed for a second transplant. An adult son who lived about 1000 miles away was to be her donor.
Deidre competed in track and field in her high school years, and we hoped that she would be able to run at the Transplant Games one day. As the youngest person at her dialysis center, she dreaded going in and seeing the empty seats of those who had died since her last treatment. Over time, Deidre lost the weight. She was ready to start her new life, but for reasons unknown to me, her son delayed being tested as her donor. That's when I first thought about stepping forward to offer myself as her donor, but I was afraid that I would be seen as interfering in her family's business, so I did nothing.
Deidre was the first person I knew who died waiting for a transplant. When I hear the statistics about the thousands of people who die each year waiting for the gift of life, it is always her face that I see.
I didn't help my husband because I didn't know that I could, but he was lucky that a deceased donor offered the gift of life to a stranger like him. I didn't help Deidre because I was afraid of offending her family, and to be honest, I was simply afraid.
I wasn't ready yet to be a donor, but these experiences were bringing me closer to making that decision. Losing my mother around the same time and working through that grief sharpened my focus on the importance of sharing life and leaving a legacy. I don't have any children, but my good health could allow me to give the gift of life to someone else.
Robb and I were asked to help out at our local NKF's Gift of Life dinner. I had been thinking again about donation when we happened to run into Robb's former transplant clinic nurse who told us she was now responsible for living donor work-ups at our local organ procurement organization (OPO). She introduced me to the living donor coordinator at the nearest transplant center who also happened to be at the dinner. Since I now knew several people from our support group who were on the list, it made sense for me to offer myself as a Good Samaritan donor, and allow the transplant center to match me with the person most likely to thrive with my kidney.
The summer of 2006 went so fast for me. I advanced from medical records reviews and simple lab tests through the OPO, to multidisciplinary exams and invasive tests at the transplant center. I was entirely at peace with my decision, and excited as I advanced each step toward being approved as a donor. While most people in my life were supportive, many could not understand why I would choose to give my kidney to a stranger. I chose living donation because so many people needed that gift. I now knew many others who had benefitted from the generosity of organ donors, and most simply, because the circumstances of my life made me able to do it.
A week or two before the scheduled surgery date, I was told that I had been matched with a 71-year-old grandmother from New Jersey. There was a slight bump in the road when I learned that I was not a candidate for laparoscopic surgery because my left kidney, the one that is more easily accessed by that technique, was significantly larger. If I wished to proceed with donation, I would have to consent to an open surgery to remove my right kidney. That was fine with me, but made Robb extremely nervous. I asked him to put himself in that woman's shoes. I couldn't let his fear for my safety take away her chance for renewed life, and ultimately neither could he.
The transplant center's coordinator arranged for me to meet my recipient two days after surgery. I had just recovered from some serious anesthesia-related nausea so I wasn't at my best for that first meeting with Dee Iannacone, her husband Bob and two of her five children. Our relationship has deepened and grown over the years. Dee has become a surrogate mom and confidant to me; indeed, she was my perfect match. It's been most gratifying to see how my gift has enabled her to simply be with her family to reach important milestones like her 50th wedding anniversary, or most recently, to see the first of her nine grandchildren be married.