The Gift I Was Glad to Give

by Vickie Bennett

On April 18th 1996, two days before our fifth anniversary, I gave my husband a kidney.

My husband Tommy was born with polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary disease that reduces and destroys kidney function over time. The doctors told his parents when he was born he wouldn't live six weeks. But Tommy was a fighter and after he came home from the hospital he pretty much lived a normal life.

In the late spring of 1994 Tommy began to feel tired and weak all the time. His muscles ached constantly. On June 15 at the age of 25 he was admitted to the hospital with kidney failure. He had surgery the next day to insert a perm catheter so he could start Hemodialysis.

Everything in our lives changed after this.

Tommy didn't like Hemodialysis. It really takes a lot out of you. His blood pressure would drop and he still felt tired and achy all the time. Plus he had to go to a clinic for four hours, three times a week. He had planned to return to work but he just didn't have the strength. He decided he wanted to try Peritoneal dialysis. This dialysis is not as hard on the patient as Hemodialysis and it can be done at home.

In September of 1994, Tommy had surgery to insert his Tenkhoff catheter. Tommy and I went through a two-week training session and we started doing the dialysis ourselves. We both liked peritoneal dialysis better because we could do it at home while Tommy was sleeping. He also felt much better on this dialysis than he did on hemo and he was able to return to work. However, our lives became a routine of work and dialysis (he had to be hooked to a machine for ten hours every night). We had very little time for recreational activities.

When Tommy first started dialysis his cousin had volunteered to give him a kidney, but she developed some health problems and was unable to proceed. In October of 1994, Tommy and I went and talked with the transplant coordinator at East Carolina University School of Medicine in Greenville, NC. (They are an outstanding group of people.) The coordinator told us all about kidney transplants.

We found out that Tommy's best chance would be if one of his brothers matched. She told us to talk to his brothers and see if they would be willing to be tested. I told her I would be willing to donate if I matched. I think Tommy was really shocked that I would be willing to do this for him. We left the transplant department and immediately went to have blood drawn. We were told that the chances of us matching would be very slim.

Two days later I could stand the suspense no longer, so I called the transplant coordinator. I couldn't believe what she told me, Tommy and I not only had the same blood type but we had 2 out of 6 antigens that matched. (They would do the transplant if just the blood type matched.) When I told Tommy he couldn't believe it. After talking it over with the transplant coordinator, we decided to see if his brothers would be tested. The best chance of success was a living related donor, but if his brothers didn't want to donate, then living unrelated was the next best. One of his brothers was tested but he didn't match. His other brother was only 18 and he was really scared, so he decided not to be tested. Tommy didn't want me to give him one of my kidneys because he was afraid something would happen to me. I don't think he would have let me be tested if he thought we would match. I told him that if it was God's will ( and I really felt like it was because we matched), everything would be okay. I couldn't persuade Tommy to accept my kidney so I encouraged him to be put on the transplant waiting list. He agreed and started having all his tests done.

Then in January of 1995, Tommy's mama died. She also had polycystic kidneys and she had been on dialysis for ten years. This really upset Tommy and he put everything on hold. He said he needed some time to deal with everything that had happened before he could decide what he wanted to do.

In June of 1995, Tommy decided he would finish the tests and be put on the waiting list. I again tried to persuade him to let me give him one of my kidneys. He said he would think about it. After several months he finally agreed to let me donate a kidney.

Tommy and I checked into the hospital on the 17th of April 1996. I must say the transplant team were really supportive and understanding. Tommy and I wanted rooms close together and they managed to arrange this even though it was a lot more expensive.

The staff at the hospital was great. We were able to stay with each other as long as we wanted all that day and that night. At 6:30 AM on the 18th they came to take me to the prep room. We passed the staff coming to get Tommy and the lady that was taking me said we would wait for him at the elevator so we could go down together. They even rearranged the order in the prep room so we could be side by side. This was so nice!

When I came to in the recovery room I couldn't believe the surgery was already over. I was only in surgery for about 2 hours. When I got back to my room I was greeted by my family. I was hooked up to a morphine pump, this was really great. Although I never had any extreme pain, this was nice when the pain was uncomfortable. I would wake up every hour and it would seem like I had been asleep for days. At 2:30 PM the nurse came in my room and said Tommy was out of surgery and doing fine. She said they would be bringing him by my room any minute. When they rolled him by we waved and said "I love you" at the same time. I was able to talk to Tommy on the phone later that evening and he thanked me for giving him my kidney.

The next morning the nurse came to give me my bath and told me that Tommy had already had his bath and he was sitting in his chair. After they gave me my bath they helped me into a chair and they rolled me over to see him. He sure did look good. The Kidney had started working immediately and he could already tell a difference. Seeing him feel better was worth any amount of pain I had to go through.

They had me up walking several times that day and I always went to see Tommy. That night my IV was really starting to burn. I asked the nurse if they could take it out and she said they could but that would mean I wouldn't have the morphine pump. I told her to go ahead and take out the IV because I didn't need the morphine anymore.

Saturday morning when the doctor came by he told me he would let me go home if I wanted to. I wanted to go home but I didn't want to leave Tommy. It was our 5th anniversary and that didn't make it any easier. They told me if I didn't go home they would be moving me to a cheaper room. So, I said if I have to leave Tommy I may as well go home. It was real hard to leave him but I was glad to be home. Tommy joined me 4 days later.

I can't hardly believe the difference in Tommy. He's like a totally different person. He has more energy now than he had when we were dating. Seeing him feel and look better has given me the greatest pleasure. He returned to work five weeks after surgery and he is still doing wonderful.

I returned to work after three and a half weeks and have experienced no problems whatsoever. Everyone keeps asking me if I feel any different. The answer is I don't, I can't tell any difference.

People keep telling me how brave and heroic I was to go through with the surgery, but I don't see it that way. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to do something that could help someone I love. The transplant has changed both of our lives. We are no longer tied down at night. The difference in Tommy continues to amaze me. This is an experience that will always be special for both of us. Tommy says it's the best anniversary present I have ever given him.

Not everyone is able to have a living donor, and there are so many people waiting for organs that thousands die before they become available. I am fortunate because I can see the result of my donation everyday. It's a wonderful feeling to know that because of my gift Tommy has a new life. Even though you may not be able to see the results of your donation, you can still know that what you are doing will improve the lives of many people. By signing a donor card, you can help somebody live a better life!