The Gift Of Life: Feelings of a Living Kidney Donor

by Steven A. Blakeman

If it was the lottery, I wouldn't have wasted my time. A raffle ticket? I'd prefer to just donate the money. If odds are 50/50, you know who comes out on the losing end? Things like that just never work out for me. Not that I have a bad attitude mind you, I've just always had to do things the old-fashioned way and earn them. So obviously when I was asked to be worked up as a potential donor for a kidney for my sister, I felt safe in the thought that it would look noble, but odds were certainly in my favor that I wouldn't be the lucky one. Especially because there were six siblings (of which I'm the oldest) plus my parents to be evaluated. Well..... this was the day that I should have bought the ticket!

My sister Denise who is 31 years old has been very ill. When she was 15 she almost died before doctors figured out that she had nearly zero kidney function and was immediately placed on dialysis. Her kidneys were the victims of Bright's Disease. We were all tested at that time for a potential donor but because of some blood transfusions she had received, there were antibodies present and the tests showed that there was a good chance of rejection. She was placed on the waiting list and it took about five years for the right one to appear (she is O negative). I remember it well when she got the call and how anxious, yet excited she was. The next day the kidney was hers. Many anxious moments followed and it took three weeks before it produced urine. But that was 11 years ago and the kidney has served her well; but now it was all happening once again. She was very ill and needed either a new kidney or dialysis once again, and she sure didn't want dialysis. I understand that dialysis has changed considerably, but her memories of it were not pleasant.

It was determined that my dad and I were the best candidates and the final testing began. It didn't take long before it was determined that my dad would not work out, as willing as he was to do it, and that I was an excellent match. It seemed that the antibodies that were there 11 years ago were no longer present. The day of reckoning was here. I can honestly say that I felt no pressure from my sister or any of my family, and none at all from those involved at the hospital. Although concerned, my wife Kathy and my two sons were very supportive. It was clearly my choice.

I had no difficulty in wanting to help my sister, but I had a ton of anxiety. I guess you'd have to know me. I get queasy at just the smell of a doctor's office! I'm probably the worlds biggest baby when it comes to medical procedures. But it didn't take long to realize that the chance to give health and life to another person and be alive to witness it doesn't come along more than once in several lifetimes. I had to do it!

My sister had moved to Sacramento, California several years ago and married a fine man from there. For insurance purposes I had to fly from Ohio to Sacramento for the procedure and within several weeks my wife and I were on our way. I thank God that each day I felt more confidence and determination to do it. After a few last minute tests, the day was here and there was no backing out.

We arrived at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento early on the morning of surgery. There were both anxiety and excitement in the air along with a few tears as well. It was a day that I'm sure none of us will soon forget. The surgeon, Dr. Ward, had told me that he would take the left kidney and remove it through the front leaving about an 8-inch incision just below the ribs. Surgery would take about 2 ½ hours each and they expected no complications. I was given the choice of several pain control procedures. One was intravenous injections as needed, another was the pain pump in which I could press a button and automatically release pain medication, and another was an epidural catheter which is inserted in the lower back along the spine and is designed to pinpoint the area of pain and channel medication directly to the source. I opted for the latter and am really glad that I did.

Our parents had flown out the night before, and my brother and his wife who also live in Sacramento were there along with my sister's husband Roger. My family prayed with us and asked for God's safety and protection. I had a wave of emotions flooding through my mind as they wheeled me toward the operating room, but overriding all others was an assurance that this was right, and that everything would be ok.

The next thing I remember was waking up in the recovery room. Although in a fog, I knew that I was awake and alive. I had a burning pain in my side which slowly dissolved as the epidural took effect. I was groggy as they returned me to my room but I remember thinking that I was thankful it was over and wondered how my sister was doing. I didn't feel much like talking, but was glad to hear that everything went well. I was told that the kidney started producing urine before my sister was even closed up, and although I didn't feel like smiling outside, I was beaming inside.

I can't really say that the next few days were any fun; in fact, quite the opposite. Although manageable, the pain was difficult and I was not enjoying my first experience with a foley catheter. I suppose it was better than trying to get back and forth to the bathroom. They got me up the next morning to sit in the chair and though it was not easy, I managed and it really wasn't that bad once I got situated. Before the surgery I had concerns about nausea and vomiting, but thankfully it never happened. I had no appetite, and for what they were bringing me to eat, it was a good thing! On the third day I started taking liquids and each day a little more. I found that although it made no sense, they were right; the more that I forced myself to do, the better I felt and the more progress I made. The catheter was removed on the third morning and with some difficulty was able to convince my bladder to work on it's own by the end of the day. Walking the halls became easier and by the fifth day I was ready to be discharged and moved in with my brother. My sister had to stay two additional days, but was doing very well.

After ten more days recovering at my brother's house and enjoying my wife's great care, it was time to make the journey home. We had a reunion with the family the night before we left and my sister was able to come. It was great to see her doing so well. She was able to laugh and not be exhausted. I could see hope in her eyes once again. She was able to begin entertaining her 1 ½ year old son (an accident, but a blessing) for the first time in quite a while. Although I never said it that night, I was in awe of the miracle of life that was right before me, and that I had been able to be a part of it was amazing.

I must admit that I was still very tender and every bump in the car and plane hurt. A well-placed pillow helped quite a bit. I was glad to be home by the end of that long day and so glad that it was all over. Soon life could return to normal and this would all be a very important memory in the back of our minds.

As I type these lines, it has been five weeks since the day of the transplant. I am gaining more strength every day. The pain is drastically reduced and my stamina is (slowly) returning. I'm able to go back to work part time as a corporate executive and it's good to be back. I'm getting ancy to get back out and do the things I enjoy. I know that very soon I will be. I've had a lot of time to reflect and be thankful for all of the blessings in my life. I'm so glad that I am the one that was able to donate instead of the one who needed the gift.

My sister has called me more in the last few weeks than in all the years since she moved to California. I know she's just trying to show her thankfulness for what I did for her. She keeps trying to say thank you, and I keep telling her that it's not necessary. Sometimes I think that I'm the one that needs to say thank you for the opportunity that I had to be a part of this miracle. It's enough to know that because of my kidney, she has a new lease on life; an opportunity to enjoy her young marriage. The health to care for her young son and be a mother to him. Just to know that each day for her can now be greeted with excitement and enthusiasm. She will have the same opportunity as I to travel and enjoy life, not being tied to a machine. Having the health and strength to take a walk without fatigue, and the list goes on. Yes, I'm the one who needs to be thankful for this priveledge.

In the Bible, John 15:13 it says.."Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for a friend." I feel that in some very small way, I've been able to associate with this....and it does feel great! Love has conquered fear and anxiety, and the results have been overwhelming.

By the far as the lottery goes....looking back, I wouldn't accept the winning ticket in exchange for the opportunity I had to give another chance at life to my sister...........