When I first heard that my niece planned to give one of her kidneys to a man in her parish, a man she never met, I anxiously wondered, “Why?”
Michaelynn has two children of her own, Liam and Aidan, and a full-time job as a nurse in the Old Colony Hospice center in Randolph, Mass. Her partner, Frank Levesque, has teenage children of his own. You would think that being a mate
and a mother in an extended family would be enough to satisfy anyone’s sense of responsibility. But then, that’s not something I’d dare to say to Michaelynn’s face. I’ve known her since she was a kid and “confident” was always the word that sprung to mind. I had doubts that anything I said would change her mind. The best thing to do was to find a way to reassure myself that it was a good decision. I also learned that I was not the only person that was worried.
“At first, I very selfishly thought, ‘She has kids of her own; what if something goes badly for her?’” said Michaelynn’s mother, Jacqueline Keefe, who lives in South Carolina. “She has two young boys of her own to worry about! But, all in all, I knew she had made her mind up. She had this premonition about doing it and she was driven by it and I am very proud of my girl.”
What we didn’t consider was how long Michaelynn had been waiting to give the “gift of life” to someone. It started a long time ago, when someone close to her got sick.
“Twenty-five years ago, my best friend’s brother had leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant,” Michaelynn explained. “He had five brothers and sisters and none were a match. They started testing people outside of the family and I volunteered for that. I was not a match either, but some stranger, somewhere out there in the bone marrow registry was. David received his bone marrow transplant and had 25 more years of life, due to the generosity of a stranger. David was dying when I read about Bill’s need. We buried him on the day Bill and I met at Tufts. His story is my inspiration.”
Doing some research into the whole world of living organ donors did a lot to put my mind at ease. The more I learned, the more I saw that the odds were in Michaelynn’s favor. Most of the answers to my questions were found at the Rhode Island Hospital’s Transplant Center’s website.
“After the surgical removal of a kidney [nephrectomy], donors may go on to live normal lives. The donor's state of health should not change after donating,” according to them:
The remaining kidney enlarges and is able to perform about 80 percent of the work the two kidneys normally do.
It does not change life expectancy. Donors still qualify for health and life insurance. The only restriction on activity is contact sports that increase risk of trauma to the remaining kidney. Recuperation takes four to eight weeks. After that, people return to work, eat an unrestricted diet and participate in normal exercise. There is no need for long-term medications. Women can expect normal pregnancy and delivery.
Usually, the operation involves no serious risk for the healthy donor. The procedure carries the same risk as anyone undergoing general anesthesia. Major complications due to kidney donation are rare, 1 in 1,000 cases.
Long-term problems are minimal but some have suggested there may be a small increased risk of developing high blood pressure or excretion of protein in their urine. None of these, however, have been conclusively shown to affect the long-term health of donors. Some occupations, such as the police, fire and military, have been known to deny employment to people with one kidney but so far, if you’ll pardon the expression, nobody’s made a federal case of it.
Most altruistic donors are happy they did it.
“Your niece, I’m sure, will agree it’s the most wonderful experience to help someone in this way,” said Sheila Drew, of Exeter. Drew, as an adoptive parent herself, had hoped to give a kidney to an adopted child but when she didn’t make that match, she decided to give it away anyway. “Since I work in a hospital and knew I was healthy, I decided to continue the process and give [it] to whomever God willed.”
God willed that it be Carol Ryan, a 55-year-old mother and grandmother from Coventry. By way of coincidence, Drew is also a nurse and works at Rhode Island Hospital.
“Post-op, I met ‘Kidney Carol,’ that's what I now refer to her as ... We've, of course, become friends and will forever be connected … It’s the best thing I have ever done. I am in perfect health, of course, you have to be in perfect health to donate … I continue to spread the word whenever I can. I've had articles written at work and at my church and presented for a few organizations. Happy to tell my story to anyone who'll listen.”
As for Bill Healey, he already knew what he was facing before he met Michaelynn. He’s not heading for a day at the beach, but he’s better off than he was when he was originally diagnosed with kidney failure just over two years ago.
“For two years, I’ve been doing dialysis,” he told the Brockton Enterprise. “At first I didn’t like it, still don’t like it. But it beats the alternative.”
The alternative to dialysis was a transplant and Healey found a match in his older son. Unfortunately, the potential for kidney problems for his son were significant and he was disqualified. Healey could wait for a cadaver kidney, but the success rates are higher from a live donor. The average long-term survival of kidneys from live donors is 12 to 20 years versus seven to eight years for those obtained from cadaver donors, according to Rhode Island Hospital’s information, but there are other pluses:
The operation can be scheduled; donation and transplant occur at the same time; the time the kidney is outside the body is short, minimizing injury; and live kidneys function earlier and require less medication.
So, why isn’t there more live donation going on?
Not just anyone can donate: Donors must be at least 18 years old and in good health; and donors are medically and psychologically screened.
It costs a lot: The largest costs, which include all tests, doctors’ bills and hospital fees, are paid by Medicare or by the recipient's insurance; transportation and lost work time are usually not covered.
“Old Colony has been very supportive of me and of this, but I have already used up any paid leave I had,” said Michaelynn. “I will still have a job to go back to but I’m gonna miss the pay.”
To help Bill Healy and Michaelynn Kernan, donations in their names can be sent to P.O. Box 291, Whitman, MA 02382.
To learn more about living organ donation, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing at www.unos.org or www. rhodeislandhospital.org/services/transplant-center/ or the New England Organ Bank at www.neob.org.