November 2, 2016
By Sarah Mavrelis, Graphic Design ‘18
Most people don’t think about living organ donation, but many people should. Most don’t realize that there are more than 80,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list right now or that more than 4,000 of them will die each year, still waiting. This year it will be one less because I chose to give one of my kidneys to someone I never met before beginning my living organ donor journey.
It began in a Reddit thread originally posted by a Soldier in the US Active Duty Army who recounted his story of giving a kidney to his brother. I am an Army veteran myself and I followed his story for the next two months as he described the process from his perspective. In one of the final threads, another user commented that he was an Army Reservist who had looked into giving a kidney to his own brother but was not a match. Unfortunately, no one in his family was a match either. He said his brother had been on the transplant waiting list for a couple of years and was getting desperate. He then joked, “So if you know anyone with type O blood and in the Massachusetts area, let me know!”
I have been a regular blood donor for more than 16 years, but like most people, I had never considered living organ donation. Of course, if anyone in my family or circle of friends needed something, I would not hesitate to give. Yet, giving to a total stranger just wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t that I had ruled it out, it’s just that the opportunity never came up. It’s not like you walk around asking people if they need an organ. The Reddit thread and that comment was my opportunity. After talking it over for a couple of days with my husband, I sent the commenter a message:
“Hi. Saw your comment. I’m O negative blood. I live near Boston. How can I help?”
We all know the urban legend of someone waking up in a bathtub full of ice and a note to call 9-1-1 to find that one of their organs had been harvested, so I was relieved when the Reddit commenter sent me the contact information for the transplant team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and his brother’s name. Still, I was a little embarrassed speaking to the transplant coordinator because I had no information about my potential recipient and it felt awkward telling them I found him through the internet. However, they didn’t seem to mind and mailed me a donor guide packet.
The first step on my journey, which began in January 2016, was completing the more than 20-page donor questionnaire asking about every detail of my own medical history and that of immediate family. Next was a battery of physical and mental exams to make sure I was healthy enough in both body and mind to donate. The mental exam was grueling and was three-and-a-half hours of “what if” questions about my feelings that had never crossed my mind: What if the transplant fails, what if the recipient did this to himself, what if the recipient is a different race or religion than me, what if I don’t recover? Up next, 21 vials of blood were drawn in order to conduct blood and tissue matching, an important step that disqualifies most potential donors. After that, I had another round of testing that focused on my kidney health – scans, ultrasounds and even more blood testing. Yet another round of testing followed after that. By the final test, I had a total of 56 vials of blood drawn, five urine samples, four EKGs, two X-rays, an ultrasound and a CT scan. I was finally cleared for donation and the surgery was done June 30th, 2016.
When I told friends about by decision to donate, it was met with excitement but also confusion.
“Why are you giving it to a stranger?”
“What if you need it?”
“What if someone in your own family needs it,” they asked.
I finally met my recipient about three weeks before the surgery, so we were no longer technically strangers. I learned about his life before he got sick, why he needed a kidney and what his hopes and dreams were for the future. I also met some of his family, and his mom and I became quick friends. The nearly six months of testing and retesting ensured that the doctors made absolutely certain that both kidneys were functioning properly and the chance of future failure of my remaining kidney was very low. From the perspective of the transplant team, it made no sense to do one transplant now if there was a higher than negligible chance they’d be doing two more in the future because of a pair of bad kidneys. As to the last question, as a 40-year-old woman, it’s unusual that I don’t have children, but this also means I don’t need to save my organs. And besides, if everyone who could donate, did donate, there would be no more waiting list and no need to save organs for an unlikely and unforeseeable event. The way I looked at it, this was my way of passing on my legacy and DNA to a future generation – I was giving life in a very unique way.
Of course, not everyone can donate, even if they are in perfect health. It can be difficult to get the time off from work for the six-week post-surgery recovery period. Even with approved time off, many can’t afford to lose six weeks of income. Not only that, you need a caretaker for the first week or two after surgery, which means a spouse, parent or friend must also find time off from their own lives. None of this was a worry for me as an unemployed college student. The surgery schedule lined up perfectly with summer vacation, allowing me to jump right back into things just in time for the start of the Fall semester at Mount Ida.
Following the successful transplant, my recipient is doing great and so am I. Now that I’ve fully recovered, I’m making it my mission to spread awareness for Living Kidney Donation. I will be participating in the Boston Kidney walk in October. I have also started a Facebook page (facebook.com/SarahSharesSpares) that details my journey and shares facts about being a living kidney donor. I know there are many more people like me that would donate if only they knew they could, and that they were able do it with almost no impact to their long term health. The reason we are able to donate living kidneys is because we really only need one to live.
If you are interested in learning more about Living Kidney Donation visit the National Kidney Foundation website at www.kidney.org. Or find me on campus – I can’t wait to tell you how I spent my summer vacation!