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Giving the Gift of Life

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A Spectrum team member goes above and beyond for a near stranger.

 Written by Katherine Walker, Outreach Coordinator for The Enclave at Anthem Senior Living in Anthem, Arizona

April is National Donate Life Month. Have you ever considered a living organ donation? I had not … until one day, I did. What started out as a nudge — and later a calling — became one of the biggest blessings of my life. 

According to the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are more than 77,000 people today waiting for a transplant of either a kidney or a liver, both of which are possible with living donations. Many recipients will wait up to three years for a transplant. With living donation, as opposed to post-mortem donation, the wait time is shortened, and the recipient can enjoy a better quality of life sooner. 

The Nudge

Personally, I had never really thought about organ donation other than checking that box on my driver’s license. However, one day in January 2013, an email came out from the Cave Creek Unified School District, where my husband and I live and where our two children attend school. The elementary school principal, Nancy Shaver, had polycystic kidney disease and needed a new kidney. Polycystic kidney disease is hereditary, and quickly Nancy’s two children and two siblings were tested for the disease and, fortunately, all were negative. However, they were also tested as potential donor matches and unfortunately, none was a match. This was when I felt the first nudge. 

The community response was overwhelming. Many people inquired about being a donor, and the list of non-family members was long. Because insurance companies test potential donors one at a time, the wait can be considerable. Nancy was concerned about the progressive nature of her disease and was staying off dialysis through diet, exercise and medication. But eventually her kidneys would fail. 

The Calling

Fast forward to May, no suitable donor had been found. I just knew: I was going to be her donor. 

I contacted the Mayo Clinic and learned about the process for becoming a donor. First, I went through a medical-history interview via phone. Next would be a battery of tests including blood tests for tissue typing and cross-matching, an EKG, radiologic testing, cancer screening, psychological testing and a gynecological exam. 

In September, nine whole months after the initial email from the school, I found out that based on my test results, I was a good match for Nancy. I wasn’t surprised. I was excited. Nancy and I decided on a date of January 7, 2014, with the understanding that if it became medically necessary for her health, we would go sooner. 

Both Nancy and I are relatively private people, and we kept the upcoming surgery quiet for the most part, but word eventually got out and garnered a lot of attention. Notes, flowers, gift cards for dinners and handmade cards from entire classes at the elementary school poured in for both of us. The students wrote a school song especially for Nancy. Social media blew up with all the well-wishers. It was truly humbling and amazing. 

The surgery went great. I recovered in the hospital for one night, and Nancy stayed two. My recovery was smooth. I had a little pain and discomfort the first week, but was mostly just tired. Nancy also did very well until about five weeks after the transplant. She encountered some problems when her body developed antibodies against the new organ, which is common with transplants. Because it’s common, doctors were able to reverse the development of the antibodies, and Nancy’s body accepted the new organ. 

Marking Time

We just celebrated another “kidneyversary” in January. Four years post transplant, Nancy’s new kidney is doing great. We have formed a crazy bond. We were acquaintances at one time. Now, she is my family. It was a joy to watch the glow come back to Nancy’s face and to hear the energy and laughter in her voice. 

What’s more, the entire experience has changed me. The decision was easy — there was a need that I could fill. I had faith that all would go well. I had the health to recover quickly. And I had the hope that my recipient would be just fine. It made me realize just how important it is to give to others in this life. 

Organ donation forever changes the recipient’s life, too. If you’re ever lucky enough to be a donor match … just do it. I did, and have not regretted it for a second. I’m sure that Nancy feels like she was the one blessed, but really, I feel like the winner.