Tina shared her story with me via telephone.
She’d never thought much about being a kidney donor. She was just in the right place at the right time. She hasn’t even told that many people that she’s a donor. Of course, that is about to change.
On an otherwise normal day at work, Tina, not meaning to eavesdrop, overheard a distraught coworker, David, telling another coworker that his wife had left him. Not only that, but she did so with full knowledge that David was on the road to renal failure, and on the wait list for a kidney transplant.
Tina doesn’t know what compelled her to enter into their conversation. She can only deduce that it was God working through her, because with very little hesitation, she offered to donate a kidney to David. Surprised and perhaps just a little bit leery, David gave her the contact information for the transplant coordinator.
“He said, ‘You’d really do that for someone who’s just a coworker?’ But I didn’t think about how well I knew him or not. I thought about how I’d hope for someone to step up for me if I really needed it. I’d like to think that most people in this world would do that for any fellow human.”
Tina contacted the transplant coordinator that same day. The transplant team paused briefly upon learning that eleven years prior, Tina had been diagnosed with cutaneous leiomyosarcoma. However, since the tumor had been completely removed, the transplant team felt it was safe to move forward with testing.
Tina and David went to the hospital together for a group orientation, which consisted of education, psychological evaluations, blood work, and x-rays. She and David used the time to get to know each other and begin to form a bond, having as much fun as two people can have during a day of hospital tests.
As is the case with many donor stories, it took four months for them to approve Tina for the donation. By then it was September 2007. She called David to share the good news. They set a surgery date for October.
On their last day at work before the operations, their coworkers threw them a party. David also brought his daughter, Violet, and the two of them presented Tina with a painting Violet had made (see feature image above). Very subtly, in the abstract of the painting, it said the words “thank you.”
Tina had agreed to participate in a long-term study called Assessing Long Term Outcomes of Living Donation (ALTOLD). The study started the day before the operation. Tina was admitted to the hospital in the late afternoon for initial study paperwork and pre-op testing. “It worked out well,” she said. “All the paperwork and everything distracted me from being scared, and I learned a lot that day, which I liked.”
Her best friend planned to spend the night with her in the hospital. At one point, the friend asked the nurse for a pair of pajama pants, but they were too tight. The nurse returned with size 10XL. “They were so big, we both fit into one leg of them. We had the nurse take a picture of us like that. As long as I kept my sense of humor, I wasn’t scared.”
When she woke following the laparoscopic procedure, Tina had a rough time. It turned out that she’s allergic to most opiate-based painkillers. She became so sick that they had to sedate her again, and when she left the hospital days later, she did so without anything more than Tylenol.
Because she wasn’t able to properly control her pain, it took a long time to heal. Just three months later, in January 2008, a sharp pain near her incision site became so intense that she had to return to the hospital for a diagnostic scope. They discovered large adhesions in her bowels, a somewhat common occurrence following abdominal surgery, especially considering Tina’s lack of pain medication.
“The pain was unbearable,” she said. “Right before the second surgery, I dealt with the suicide of a loved one. It was something I struggled with a lot until I experienced so much physical pain myself. That helped me get through it, actually. Finally having some understanding of what he went through. Except I was determined to beat it.”
While recovering, she suffered the misfortune of being laid off from her job. She moved to Kentucky where there were more job opportunities. A year later, during a routine follow-up as part of the ATOLD study, they found a spot on Tina’s leg that was alarmingly similar to the cutaneous leiomyosarcoma she’d had twelve years earlier. Further tests confirmed that the spot was indeed cancerous.
“The cancer hadn’t returned. It was a whole new instance of it, which is pretty rare. I knew that they’d found a cyst on the kidney I’d given to David. Now I was afraid that I’d given him a cancerous kidney, but the doctors assured me it wasn’t possible with that type of cancer. It was still a defining moment for me, though. If I hadn’t donated the kidney, I wouldn’t have been part of the ATOLD study, and if I hadn’t been part of the study, they might not have found the tumor, or at least, not as quickly as they did.”
After a hard year of kidney donation, the loss of a loved one, a second operation, the loss of her job, moving to a new city, and finally the second instance of sarcoma, Tina’s life finally started to return to normal. Even through all of that, she was most thankful that David never experienced any problems following the donation, and to this day is still doing very well.
“We’re very close now, like siblings from another life. I’m close with his older sister as well. Even from so far away, they never miss a birthday or anniversary or holiday. They’re always there to celebrate with me.”
Tina’s story in particular resonates with me because there are many similarities to my own story. The complications post-donation, the loss of her job and the upheaval of everything she knew as “normal,” the loss of a loved one in the midst of it all. While every story I’ve heard has moved me, Tina’s was the first to make me see that even in the bizarrely unfortunate sequence of events that accompanied my donation, I was not–and am not–alone.
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