Don’t All Donors Deserve Donor Shield?

I’ve been emailing, calling, and visiting state legislators and members of Congress for a long time about supporting and protecting living donors. I don’t mean the feel-good kind of support that calls us “heroes” and “awesome folks” but takes no action. I’m talking about finding meaningful ways to remove hurdles that can be deal breakers for so many people who might otherwise consider donating their kidney. While Congress and legislators have been dragging their feet, a terrific model plan has been hiding in plain sight: the National Kidney Registry’s Donor Shield.

First, a little background that may be familiar to some of you: nearly 100,000 people in this country wait years for a kidney, but only about 23,000 kidney transplants were performed last year. Meanwhile, thousands die every year because they didn’t get a kidney (or other organ) in time. For the foreseeable future, our best hope of dramatically changing those appalling odds is through living donation. So, simply put, we need to make it easier for people to manage being live donors.

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How? For starters, by providing paid leave for all living donors for donation-related time off work–not just for federal and some state employees (not everyone has paid sick leave, and those who do shouldn’t have to use up their leave time); reimbursing for travel and lodging costs if donating far from home; and covering “incidental” expenses (which can feel anything but incidental: think childcare or eldercare).

You may already know that NKR facilitates paired donation (aka kidney swaps) through the world’s largest database of potential recipients and live donors. If you’ve never heard of Donor Shield, remember that name even if you don’t plan to be part of a paired donation. NKR automatically provides Donor Shield, which encompasses those common-sense protections and so much more, to all its living donors. But if you donate at any of the 90 U.S. transplant centers that’s affiliated with NKR– even if it’s not a paired donation!–you would get Donor Shield, too. I’m happy to see that the University of North Carolina Hospitals, where I donated to my son in 2006, is now affiliated with NKR.

The transplant center pays the cost, so there’s no charge for the donor. And there’s no cost to the recipient either. I hasten to add that because I was shocked–and infuriated–to learn that the National Living Donor Assistance Center bases its eligibility for donor assistance on the recipient’s household income. NLDAC apparently figures that the recipient, who’s already contending with surgery and lost work time, should simply reimburse the donor for any such expenses.

In addition to the benefits and protections for living donors mentioned above, which legislators and federal agencies have been studying for years, Donor Shield also includes additional attractive features, such as providing legal support in the unlikely event that a donor is fired for taking time off to donate or encounters insurance discrimination; and in the rare event that a donor later needs surgery for a donation-related complication that isn’t covered for any reason, they’ll cover it along with lost wages, and travel and lodging expenses for the donor and a companion.

Not only are these measures the right thing to do, they obviously save lives by making more transplants possible and taking people off the waitlists. If the moral argument doesn’t sway the powers that be, the economic argument should. Shortening the wait for a kidney, and reducing or even avoiding time on dialysis, saves hospitals and the federal government millions of dollars.

Even if the transplant center you’re donating at isn’t affiliated with NKR, it’s worth asking if they would agree to provide Donor Shield (they can obtain it). The more donors who request it, the more likely centers are to get on board. If only paired donation, NKR, and Donor Shield had been available back when I donated!

Did You Know? Pass It On!

Whether you’re a donor, a potential donor, or a kidney patient looking for a donor, here are a few intriguing facts everyone should know about living donors:

  1. More than a third of living kidney donors are over 50 years old (I was 58 when I donated to my son 14 years ago), and the proportion is rising.
That’s me, right before a memorable 2018 trip to “the Bean” in Chicago to help set a Guinness World Record for largest gathering of living donors.

2. Most living donors, like me, say they would do it again (often adding “in a heartbeat”).

3. Many living donors were inspired to donate to someone they didn’t know because of an eye-opening article they read or a moving Facebook post that resonated with them.

4. Nondirected donors–empathetic people who choose to donate to someone they don’t know and may never meet–now represent about 3% of living donors in the United States, but the percentage is on the rise.

5. Nondirected donors can save multiple lives by initiating a swap (aka a paired donation, as a friend did in advance for her son)–or even a chain of transplants. If Donor A isn’t a match for their intended recipient (Recipient A), but the nondirected donor is, he or she donates to Recipient A, and Donor A donates to someone else who wasn’t a match for their recipient, and so on.

6. Most living donors (in an informal survey) own rescue pets. (A shout-out to WELD San Diego for that interesting statistic!)

7. And, of course, most living donors are women (another shout-out to WELD, which, by the way, stands for WoMen Encouraging Living Donation–yes, they now include men in their growing ranks).

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

Celebrating Milestones

Most of my kidney-related milestones mark the number of years since I donated to my son (2006), who was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease when he was in college. This month I get to celebrate a different kind of milestone: one year since I launched this website! I didn’t know what to expect when I set out to lend a helping hand to anyone who might remotely be considering being evaluated as a living donor. I wanted to offer reliable, accessible resources about donation, offering the candid perspective of someone who’d been there.

It’s been a rewarding learning process all the while, and I am fairly pleased with the results and the response. At this point numbers may not mean much, but they’re still pretty interesting. Here’s what the numbers tell us about the response (as of March 2020):

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Visitors: 3,000+

Views:  nearly 5,000

Countries: 41; the vast majority of visitors are naturally from the U.S., but Canada, the U.K., India, and Australia each had more than 50.

Ranking: no. 9 of “Top 30 Kidney Donor Blogs, Websites & Influencers in 2020”

Top Posts:

Just How Unlikely Is It for a Donor to Need a Transplant?

            Wondering Who Gave a Kidney to Stevie Wonder?

            Kidney Swaps and Vouchers and Chains, Oh My!

            What Do These Celebrities Have in Common?

            5 (Big) Benefits of Live Donation—For the Donor

Here are a few posts that I wish had gotten more attention:

            Howl the Owl and Brenda Cortez Help Kids Grasp Organ Donation

            Kidney Vouchers Are Even Cooler Than You Thought

            Health Materials in Plain English

            Health Information Is Power!

Thanks so much for reading my posts and following me. Please let me know what topics or features you’d like to see on this site.

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!)

Goalie who scored a kidney helps win NHL game!

In my last post I wrote about celebrities who’ve been given a shot at a fuller, healthier life because of a living kidney donor. If you thought they mostly led quiet restricted lives, along comes David Ayres, the emergency goalie who won the game for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team against the Toronto Maple Leafs!

Ayres received a kidney from his mother (like my son did!) 15 years ago. Since then the 42-year-old kidney transplant recipient has been happy to be a practice goalie, Toronto arena operations manager, and sometime-Zamboni driver. He never dreamed he’d get his turn in an NHL game, an always-physical and sometimes brutal sport. But on February 22, when a string of injuries left the Canes without a goalie, he was called to the ice with 28:41 to go in the game. He stopped eight shots and helped earn the team a dramatic 6-3 victory in his NHL debut.

The Canes are selling No. 90 Ayres tee shirts, for which he will receive royalties. A portion of the proceeds will go to a kidney foundation in his honor. The Canes are working with him to determine which foundation. There were a lot of winners that night in Toronto. The donation and the increased awareness of kidney transplants means that there will be even more.