I donated a kidney to my Dad on July 25, 2017.
My Dad had been struggling with kidney problems for a long time. He has Crohn's disease, which is an inflammatory bowel disease. Unfortunately for Dad, this disease didn't just mess up his intestines - it has wreaked havoc on much of his body. My Dad had numerous kidney stones continually throughout my childhood. The stones and the resulting inflammation and scarring eventually severely damaged his kidneys. He lost his first kidney about 15 years ago. His remaining kidney limped along for a while afterwards, but he's spent much of the past few years quite sick. He had to retire from work and found himself unable to do the activities and hobbies he once enjoyed. In October 2016, his kidney finally failed, and he was started on dialysis.
As a physician, I know the benefits of a transplant and I immediately told Dad that I wanted to try to donate one of my kidneys to him. Dad was extremely reluctant to even consider the idea, as the thought of something potentially happening to me during surgery was more than he could bear. But I kept providing him with resources and information about how relatively safe this was for me. In February 2017, while my Dad was in the hospital getting his last kidney removed, I had my first blood draw to see if I was a match.
To me, this was a no-brainer. I never once had a moment of hesitation about donating my kidney. I've watched my Dad struggle with his medical issues for so many years, and if there's anything I could do to ease his suffering, I would do it. He's the best father a girl could ever ask for. He attended all of my sporting events, school functions, graduations, and even walked me down the aisle of my wedding in May 2017, while dealing with so much himself. He has never once wavered in his support and love of me. After all that Dad has done for me, this was truly the least I could do for him.
The transplant center team at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital was amazing at providing me with information and answering all my questions. In addition, I spent a lot of time reading living kidney donor blogs/stories, and I feel like those were the most helpful to me. It was comforting to read about people not too different from myself and to get an honest, first-hand impression of the process. Knowing what to expect definitely made this so much easier!
Shortly after I started the donation process, I learned that I'd be moving later in the year to a new state. Since I was already going to have to leave my job and start a new one, I scheduled the donation surgery for that transition period in between. I arranged to have about 6 weeks from our surgery date to the start of my new job. Luckily, I was able to use the remaining sick/vacation days I had from my job to cover 2-3 weeks of that time as paid leave. That definitely helped to ease the burden financially!
I'm also fortunate that I have a job that paid enough for me to be able to save up some money to live on during this period. And since I was donating my kidney to my Dad, my parents were kind enough to cover a couple of my bills during the time when I was recuperating and unemployed. The transplant center paid all of my medical costs (of course), so I really just had to deal with my normal expenditures. I am just so grateful that I was in a position financially to be able to do this!
I started the process to become a living kidney donor in February 2017 while my Dad was in the hospital to have his second kidney removed. They took multiple tubes of blood that day, and a couple weeks later, I was notified that I was a match. I was ecstatic! A few weeks later, I had my first visit with the transplant center, where I met with the chaplain, social worker, nurses, living donor coordinator, and physician. Because I was living in another state from where the surgery was going to take place and was having to travel back and forth, the transplant center worked with me to schedule as many appointments as possible on a single day. Luckily, they managed to get my entire medical workup, including blood draws, EKG, chest xray and CT, all scheduled for the same day!
Unfortunately, I had a couple of bumps in the road with my medical workup. An enlarged node was found on my CT scan that concerned the transplant team. They spoke to an oncologist who thought that it was probably not cancer, but thought I needed to have a colonoscopy to rule it (or an inflammatory process) out. I received this news a couple of weeks prior to my wedding day, which didn't exactly reduce my stress! Immediately following my honeymoon in May 2017, I had my colonoscopy. Talking to the GI doc prior to the colonoscopy, he thought the most likely explanation for the node was trauma from being assaulted by a patient (I'm a psychiatrist) a couple of weeks prior to my CT scan (I was punched multiple times in the area of the node). However, multiple abnormalities were found, and biopsies were taken. I was told that they'd have to wait for the results of the biopsies, but the probable diagnosis was Crohn's disease (which is what my Dad has). And then I was told I would likely be unable to donate my kidney.
I was devastated and heartbroken. The realization that I likely had a serious, chronic medical condition that I would battle for the rest of my life paled in comparison to the realization that I could not give Dad a kidney. It was an amazingly difficult time for me. But a little over a week later, everything changed. My biopsy results came back, and instead of probable Crohn's disease, we moved to probably NOT Crohn's disease. There was some ulceration/inflammation, but the biopsies did not show any evidence of chronicity that would be suggestive of a long-term/chronic illness like Crohn's. So, my GI doctor thought it was most likely a self-limited process, possibly a bug I picked up during my honeymoon in Peru. But best of all, the donation was back on!
From that point on, there were no further roadblocks! We finished the rest of our testing and were cleared for surgery with our transplant date set for July 25, 2017.
The best thing I did in preparation for my donation was to continue to exercise and stay as healthy as possible. I was already a marathon runner, so I kept racing right up until donation time -- in fact, I did a 5k two days prior to surgery! I feel that being in pretty good shape and having my endurance built up really helped me after surgery. Walking for recovery didn't seem so bad when I was used to running 13-26 miles at a time. Plus, having some arm/leg strength was incredibly useful immediately after surgery when my core was weak and sore, and I had to find creative ways to get myself up out of chairs. ;)
Everybody in my life was so incredibly supportive of my decision to donate a kidney. My new husband was proud of me for being willing to do this and stepped right up to help me through it. He slept in my hospital room with me both nights I was in the hospital and stayed at my parents' house with me for the first couple of weeks I was recuperating so that he could take care of me. My Mom was also a huge source of support and somehow managed to take care of both Dad and me when we came home from the hospital!
But I never could have imagined the outpouring of love we received from family members, friends, and neighbors. So many people stepped up to help make my Dad's and my recoveries a little bit easier. We were so overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the wonderful people in our lives. Having a good support system definitely made this entire process much easier and more fun. I was so very lucky!
I would definitely encourage anyone considering being a living kidney donor to give it some serious thought. Read as much as you can about it. Ask a lot of questions (even if you think they're stupid -- I promise, they're not!). Talk to people who have done it (or, read some of the amazing living donor blogs out there). And learn about how your donation will help the recipient. It felt so good to accompany Dad to his LAST dialysis treatment and know that I was the reason he was going to be able to say goodbye to that chapter of his life.
This is a life-changing process -- not just for the recipient, but also for the donor. While living kidney donation is not for everyone, I highly encourage anyone to at least look into the process. For a relatively small sacrifice, you can literally save someone’s life. Dialysis keeps a lot of people alive, but it’s a very hard life — and a lot of people don’t make it. A kidney can give a new future to someone. It’s a small price to pay, and the rewards are truly endless. I wish I had more than one to donate!
Being a kidney donor has changed my life completely -- for the better! First and foremost, it has been incredible for me to see the progress my Dad has made and see how he has improved since receiving his transplant. That's been the best gift of all!
But it's not just his life that has improved -- mine has as well. Now that I only have one kidney, I'm much more cognizant of my own health. I've decreased my salt intake; I've increased my water consumption; and I try to exercise almost every day. I've even run a full marathon and 5 half marathons since my kidney donation a few months ago! But the benefits haven't just been physical. Mentally, I feel so much stronger. I know I can accomplish so much more than I thought I could.