Donors Need to Know All the Good News, Too

I just saw that this site’s views for April were the second highest since I launched the website 14 months ago. I noticed something else: the record month, October, happened to feature the same blog I posted about last week on Twitter and in a couple of living kidney donor support groups on Facebook: “Just How Unlikely Is It for a Donor to Need a Transplant?” (spoiler alert: very!). The obvious explanation here is that everyone loves good news, but the less obvious realization was that so many kidney donors didn’t already know that.

It’s important for living donors and potential living donors to have all the facts, including the bad, of course. But informed consent means it’s just as important that everyone know the encouraging news about living donation without sugarcoating it.

Another example of “neglected good news” is that the lower kidney function that’s common among living donors does not mean we have stage 2 or 3 kidney disease. eGFR, the scale that estimates overall kidney function and level of chronic kidney disease, really speaks of people, usually with two kidneys, whose kidney function is in decline. Donors, on the other hand, once they stabilize after donation, hit a new normal, which, in the absence of other indicators, is perfectly fine.

More important is the creatinine reading, which indicates level of toxins and reflects how well the kidney is working. For example, nearly 14 years after donating to my son, I still have an excellent creatinine level (0.85 on a recent test)–not just excellent for a donor, excellent for anyone!

I’m all for learning all the information that’s out there, and hope to see long-term lifetime follow-ups on all living donors. But in the meantime, we can all use a little reassurance these days. Let’s take it where we can.

Reimburse Living Donors’ Lost Pay–and More

Several months ago I was excited to learn that financial assistance for living donors was going to be substantially expanded—encompassing more people and for more kinds of noncovered expenses, like lost wages, childcare, and eldercare. As a living donor and advocate, last year at this time I provided public comment on the subject and followed up with emails to members of Congress. In July the incredible Executive Order on Advancing Kidney Health touted a major expansion of reimbursement for donor expenses, in addition to efforts to improve early detection of chronic kidney disease, encourage medical innovation, and lots more.

The devil is always in the details, which take time. Ever since, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the good news. The current financial eligibility limit, at 300% of poverty line (or $38,000), has long been way too low. Advocates have argued persuasively for increasing that to 500% ($64,000)–ideally 600%–to be able to serve the majority of living donors rather than a small fraction. For donors who don’t have paid sick leave, these extra expenses are often a deal breaker for people who might otherwise volunteer to save a life by donating their kidney.

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The proposal they came back with this week offers just pocket change: a tiny increase in the eligibility cutoff to 350% (or $45,000)!

Also, wait for this: the assistance is still tied to the recipient’s income, not the donor’s. So it does an injustice to both potential donors and recipients by putting the onus on the latter to reimburse the donor for nonmedical expenses (testing and surgery are covered by the recipient’s health insurance, be it private, Medicare, or Medicaid). The government apparently thinks it reasonable that the family of the recipient, desperately trying to find a living donor and incurring all sorts of costs themselves, when they’re facing major surgery, should have to worry about trying to reimburse their potential donor.

There’s another glitch in tying eligibility to the recipient’s income—what about nondirected donors (those who decide to donate to an unknown recipient they may never meet)? They’re out of luck here. Now, wouldn’t you think you would want to roll out the red carpet for these Good Samaritans instead of shutting an aid door in their faces?

The Executive Order was clear in its intention to expand assistance to encourage living donation. So if you’re a donor or are considering donating–or you’re a kidney patient looking for a donor…please email Frank Holloman at donation@hrsa.gov and tell him that HRSA (the federal Health Resources and Services Administration) needs to go much further in supporting living organ donors. Come to think of it, no matter what your connection to living donation is, contact HRSA, please!

“Why I Advocate” (the Video)

The National Kidney Foundation asked us advocates to make a video on Why I Advocate. Now, for me, making a video sounded pretty daunting. The message part wasn’t the problem. I wrote that fairly quickly once I decided to keep it simple. Instead of focusing on living donation, I would just talk about chronic kidney disease awareness and how I came to donate my kidney to my son.

With my son (Paul) and husband (Neil) at an NKF Kidney Walk in Durham, NC, in 2016.

I’ve always thought I have two valuable simple points to add to this discussion. One is that, as you may already know, I’m a wimp. I’m hardly a brave, extroverted natural risk taker. I think that can resonate with a lot of people and maybe belies some myths about living donors.

The other is about my son, who doesn’t fit the image that most people have about those who suffer from chronic kidney disease. For starters, he was young, thin, and otherwise healthy when he developed it in college. A lot of people figure that if you don’t have a family history of kidney disease (we don’t), and you’re not obese or have diabetes or high blood pressure, it’s not something you need to think about. Wrong!

Watch my brief video to see why. (And yes, I even managed to make a video on my laptop!)

Coronavirus, Kidney Patients, and Everyone Else

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re considering donating a kidney or have already done so–but you also very likely know and care very much about someone who has chronic kidney disease (in my case my son, Paul, and my friend/co-author, Betsy, for starters). Or maybe you have it yourself.

With kidney patients at a high risk of contracting COVID-19–whether they are transplant recipients, are undergoing dialysis, or contemplating treatment–this is a particularly important issue for all of us and others in the kidney community. I hope that you will share the resources below with your friends and family so that they can remain safe and healthy. These materials are provided by the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and offer advice on keeping healthy during this horrific pandemic. These links will be updated as needed.

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The latest information and best practices to be prepared for COVID-19: https://www.kidney.org/…/be-prepared-kidney-patient-prep-co…
Information to help kidney patients and their families respond to emergency situations: https://www.kidney.org/help

And a blog post from NKF’s CEO Kevin Longino on Covid-19 and the kidney community: https://nkfadvocacy.blog/…/supporting-you-during-the-coron…/

Whatever your own health status, and wherever you live, please stay safe and closely follow recommendations and requirements in your area. Also, here’s clear, valuable information on the virus from someone who knows more than anyone on the subject, Dr. Anthony Fauci, interviewed by Trevor Noah. https://youtu.be/8A3jiM2FNR8

Happy World Kidney Day–with a shout-out to women!

March 12 is World Kidney Day, and it seems fitting to continue our theme of women and kidneys (two of my favorite subjects). In a recent post, I pointed out that neither gets the respect and attention they/we deserve. It’s mostly because most people just don’t know a whole lot about what they do: in the case of women, we hold up half the sky, as the African proverb says. And kidneys do much the same for the body, quietly keeping it functioning as it should, balancing nutrients, eliminating dangerous toxins, regulating fluids and salt content, promoting bone health. I could go on.

Now how do I tie this back to women, you ask? Let’s consider living kidney donors. Not surprisingly, most are women. When I participated in setting the Guinness World Record for largest gathering of living donors in April 2018, it was clear that the vast majority of us donors there were women. Now, it’s tempting to say that’s all due to our natural empathy and nurturing instincts. I do believe that’s partly responsible, but I know it’s more complicated than that.

For one thing, donating a kidney, like any major surgery, usually entails taking off work for at least a couple of weeks, if you have a sedentary job as I did (editor/writer). If you’re a laborer, however, because of a restriction on lifting anything over 10 pounds for about the first 6 weeks after surgery, that obviously could mean a lot longer interruption.

Donors who are lucky enough to have sufficient paid sick leave (or any at all) don’t have to worry about lost pay. But for anyone who doesn’t, that’s a major road block to being a live donor. The reality is that, in a lot of families, it’s still harder to get by without the man’s earnings. The National Living Donor Assistance Center has been offering much-needed financial help with travel and lodging costs for some donors who need to travel to their recipient’s transplant center. It’s a wonderful program, but it hasn’t covered lost pay and other uncovered expenses. Now there’s a plan to significantly expand that assistance to cover a donor’s lost pay and major “incidental” expenses like child care and elder care. But it needs a major boost in funding from the House Appropriations Committee. Please contact your representative and tell him or her to get behind this important effort. Helping living donors helps to save lives.

Happy National Kidney Month and National Women’s Month!

NASA

Yes, March is National Kidney Month and National Women’s History Month. What do kidneys and women have in common, you ask? For starters, both are underappreciated. We can hope that someday we will get to a point where we don’t need to introduce people to integral aspects of our culture and our history (like Black History Month). For now, though, we clearly do need these reminders. Certainly the recent death of the brilliant NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (remember “Hidden Figures”?) highlighted the ongoing need for both black and women’s history month.

Similarly, this month we highlight the critically important role that kidneys play in our bodies. Do you know what your kidney function is? You may think you know what women contribute to daily life, but do you know what kidneys do? It would be crucial enough if they just removed dangerous toxins from the blood, but they also regulate the amount of fluids in our body, maintain the salt content of those fluids, balance minerals, produce urine, promote bone health, and so much more.

I’ve had a healthy respect for kidneys ever since my son was in dialysis. For nearly 2 years, dialysis machines, doctors, nurses, and technicians did a masterful job of trying to approximate what healthy kidneys manage to do every day. Yet even with doing their damndest to get this juggling act all right, dialysis can achieve only about 20% of normal kidney function. One-fifth.

Like women, kidneys pull off much of their heroic daily work quietly, often without calling attention to themselves. That’s why when kidneys are starting to fail, we usually don’t notice. More than 30 million Americans have chronic kidney disease—meaning they’re gradually losing kidney function—and most of them don’t know it. It’s called “the silent killer” because people usually don’t feel sick (and often look fine) until it’s dangerously far along. I know of people who just had a routine screening at a health fair, or went to the ER for a broken arm, or just didn’t feel right—only to learn, to their shock, that their kidneys were failing significantly and they needed to start dialysis ASAP.

My son knew he had kidney disease ever since it was diagnosed following a strep infection when he was in college. He was otherwise healthy and was told to monitor the condition with routine blood tests, which he did, never showing or feeling any symptoms. It was only at a routine checkup soon after his college graduation that the tests showed a precipitous decline in his kidney function. Within a month he was having surgery to put in an access point for dialysis, in 3 months he was undergoing dialysis 3 days a week, and close to 2 years later, he was welcoming my left kidney into its new home. It’s lived there happily since 2006, by the way. (My right kidney is managing just fine without it.)

So, this month, please make an appointment to have your kidney function checked with a simple blood test. (And be sure to thank a woman every day!)

Happy National Donors Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day AND National Donors Day! You don’t need to be a living donor like me to be able to someday save a life–or several, in fact. If you don’t have that little heart on your driver’s license and haven’t already registered as an organ donor, please don’t wait to renew your license: go to organdonor.gov, among other sites.

More than 113,000 people in the United States are waiting for a lifesaving organ (most of them for a kidney). Only about 3 in 1,000 people die in such a way that organ donation is possible–for example, in a hospital following a car accident–so the pool is very small. That’s why it’s critical that everyone register. But those that can be organ donors can donate up to eight organs: two kidneys, two lungs, a pancreas, a liver, a heart, and intestines. Plus eyes and tissue–even hands and face.

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Registering as a donor is important, but sharing your wishes with your family is just as important. When in doubt, at a very difficult time, a family in grief may choose not to donate the person’s organs. Many grieving families take lasting comfort in knowing that their loved one’s organs will help save someone’s life and bring relief and joy to another family. Most families will want to honor your wishes, if they just know what they are.

Donors, Your New-Normal Numbers Don’t = Kidney Disease!

I always tell potential kidney donors to keep an open mind but to do their homework and be as well informed about living donation as they can be. Turns out that that advice even applies years later.

Through social media donor support groups, I recently was stunned and outraged to learn that some donors have been told that they have stage 3 chronic kidney disease. One donor said she cried all night. Before you conclude that their “disease” is a result of kidney donation, I hasten to add that these were people with normal kidney function. In other words, as researchers have demonstrated, those living donors DO NOT HAVE CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE! Their slightly low readings are perfectly normal for them.

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Apparently, their primary care providers—and, unbelievably, sometimes even nephrologists—were referring to the eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate) scale based on people with two kidneys and/or real kidney disease. Donors lose 25 to 35% of their pre-donation kidney function, but that’s still sufficient to lead a healthy normal life. It’s meaningless and patently wrong to look at the numbers in a vacuum and say that these people have chronic kidney disease.

As we get older, no matter how many kidneys we have, our kidney function declines. It’s especially common for people over 70, like me, to have a slightly low eGFR. At my last check-up, though, 13 years after donating my kidney to my son, my eGFR was 69 (normal is over 60).

So, if you are a kidney donor, don’t be alarmed at news of a slightly high eGFR. Ask questions (how long has it been in that range? what’s your creatinine?), and always remind your provider that you have one kidney. You may well be relieved to know that your new normal is just fine!

Protecting Living Donors from Discrimination

This week I met with North Carolina Rep. Verla Insko, my state legislator, and Katey Cipriani, the National Kidney Foundation’s regional community outreach director. The topic was living donation, of course. We were seeking Rep. Insko’s support for a Living Donor Protection Act in our state, as we had with other legislators just a few months ago at the legislature. The General Assembly is between sessions now, so this meeting was more informal, a pleasant chat in a quiet local coffee house in Chapel Hill. I was there to share my story of donating to my son and offer some personal insights into why we need to protect living donors from discrimination.

Katey (far right) and I (far left) with fellow donor Dolores McGrath and Young Bae, Rep. Insko’s legislative assistant, who set up our meeting with Rep. Insko.

So why might donors ever be discriminated against for saving a life? Let me give you an example. To be approved as a living donor, I had to pass numerous tests that looked at my heart, lung, kidney, general fitness, myriad blood tests… Thirteen and a half years post donation, my kidney function is fine and I’m still in excellent health at 71. I’m active, enjoy Zumba a few times a week, and walk regularly. Nothing remarkable there, but I have donor friends in their 50s and 60s who run marathons. And yet…

If we apply for a life insurance policy tomorrow, there’s a chance an insurer could either deny coverage or up the premiums. Some cap coverage much lower than requested. Doesn’t make sense, does it–not to mention that it’s morally indefensible? It doesn’t happen often, but a study found that about one in four living donors had experienced some type of insurance discrimination–mainly due to misinformation about the negligible impact of living with one kidney. Did you know that many healthy people were born with one kidney? Donors do lose some kidney function, but the other kidney gets plumper and takes on part of the job of the “missing” one. As a result, donors have sufficient function to live normal productive lives.

Among other things, a state Living Donor Protection Act would prohibit insurance companies from denying or limiting coverage–or charging higher premiums–for life, disability, or long-term care insurance for living donors. The proposed federal LDPA, which has been reintroduced in Congress and has dozens of sponsors, would also address job protections and a few other issues that can be disincentives to donation. With nearly 100,000 people waiting for a kidney from a deceased donor, removing those disincentives is critical.

Most people don’t realize how widespread chronic kidney disease is–it’s more common than breast cancer or prostate cancer. As I told Rep. Insko, I really think most people are no more than two degrees of separation from someone who’s had or needs a kidney transplant: a friend of a friend, a neighbor’s cousin, a PTA member’s spouse…

Rep. Insko listened attentively and asked how other states have approached the task of protecting living donors: How many have relevant laws (11, but several more are in process)? Which one do we want to model North Carolina’s on? Did those states encounter any pushback? What concessions did they have to make to get it passed?

She also had several helpful suggestions of people in the General Assembly to approach, including those who had some ties to health care. She promised to take a close look at the related materials Katey had brought and was interested in learning more. As it turns out, we have time–most new legislation can’t be introduced until the 2021 session of the General Assembly.

I’m learning that advancing legislation is a slow, stop ‘n start process. But we’re making progress, gathering support, and picking up some tips along the way.

Health Information Is Power!

Before my son was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in 2004, I knew as much as most people about the subject—which is to say, almost nothing. Not sure if I even knew you can live a normal life with one kidney. Before he developed kidney failure, and I started the evaluation process for donating my kidney to him, I knew almost nothing about living donation. Now, fortunately or unfortunately, I know more than most people about these things and have made it my mission to help people learn before a crisis hits—in the hope, ideally, of preventing more such crises.

So now I find myself in a similar situation concerning liver disease and liver donation. No, thankfully, it’s not my own family this time, and I’m not considering being a living donor again in my 70s, but as always, it’s because of someone I care about. You may have read here that my friend and co-author, Betsy, needs another kidney transplant after 15 years. That was bad enough. For a while though, a few months later, there was good news when she’d found a living donor and was scheduled to have the transplant in December. Unfortunately, the good news gradually became more tentative as her health began to deteriorate and the transplant was postponed.

And now the biggest shock of all came last week when she/we learned that she also needs a liver transplant. After being stunned and saddened, I began my new education about livers and liver donation. All I knew was that, since the majority of people on the deceased-donor waiting lists need a kidney, the wait for a liver is much shorter: about a year versus 3 to 5 years (often 5-10). As for living liver donation, I knew you can donate part of your liver because it grows back but that it’s a bigger deal than donating a kidney–it’s a more serious surgery, with a longer recovery.

However, by reaching out to the Facebook donation/transplant community, reading articles, and searching online, I’ve already learned some very encouraging information. Did you know that you can donate two-thirds of your liver and it regenerates so much that within a few months, both you and your recipient have a healthy-sized liver?

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I also learned that the donation surgery is easier than it used to be and that some centers have started to use minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery as is done for kidney donors. That means a much smaller incision, far less pain and blood loss—and a quicker recovery. That should make it a little easier to think about asking people to consider donating.

That’s all good news, not just for Betsy and her friends and family, but for all patients and their families and friends. Betsy certainly has a lot to deal with and is facing many difficult decisions and waiting periods. But she’s an amazingly positive person and is learning all she can and asking questions so she’ll be as informed as possible. As we always say, information is power—never more so than in matters of health.