Zooming into DC for a Unique Virtual Kidney Patient Summit

Instead of flying to Washington, DC, in March with other advocates for the National Kidney Foundation Kidney Patient Summit as planned pre-COVID, we Zoomed and Hopped in last week for virtual meetings on Capitol Hill. Admittedly, virtual was less of a kick than the real thing, but it was surprisingly effective in garnering cosponsors for important pieces of legislation.

I was excited to meet with members of Congress and/or their legislative staffers to share my personal story of donating to my son and to explain the importance of a few key pieces of long-overdue legislation: the federal Living Donor Protection Act (S511/HR1224), which prevents insurance companies from discriminating against donors (I’d earlier met with my state legislators about a state version); the Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage bill (S3353/HR5534), to safeguard a kidney recipient’s precious transplant by continuing coverage of antirejection meds for the life of the transplant, instead of cutting it off at 36 months for recipients not otherwise Medicare eligible.

Given that chronic kidney disease is so widespread–about 37 million Americans have it–and underdetected–the vast majority of them don’t know it yet–we’re also asking for funds for a new Kidney Risk Campaign.

“Are You the 33%?” is a simple quiz to help raise public awareness that one in three people in this country is at risk for kidney disease. Actor/advocate Wilmer Valderrama is helping to spread the word in both English and Spanish. The risk is particularly high among African Americans and Hispanics.

Perhaps the highlight of our eight meetings was the one with my long-time congressman, Rep. David Price, who has been very supportive of the kidney community. He’s been a cosponsor of the Living Donor Protection Act for a long time and just agreed to do the same for the Immuno Drug bill! If there’s an appropriations bill before year’s end, he was also receptive to supporting the Kidney Risk Campaign funds.

Here I am meeting with Rep. David Price, his legislative director, Nora Blalock–thank you both!–and my fellow NKF advocates.

I learned a lot and “met” a lot of interesting, extremely dedicated people, like my joint North Carolina-Georgia teammates pictured here: Stuart Miller (a transplant recipient who led our group) and Cara McKinney (NKF’s exec director for Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi) from Georgia; and, from NC, Michael Phillips, a transplant recipient who survived COVID (sadly, 20 of his relatives also contracted it); and Chris Rusconi, chief research officer for the Polycystic Kidney Foundation, a fellow Triangle resident.

We raced from meeting to meeting by catching a Zoom. It was hectic but very gratifying (and my feet didn’t hurt one bit!). Afterward we compared the day’s highs and lows with other advocates. It all definitely whet my appetite for repeating this experience in person someday.

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!

Donation and Hollywood Endings

When we see a movie or TV show on a medical topic we know a lot about, we may roll our eyes when they take dramatic license, but we often just shrug it off. When the subject is something people are less familiar with, like organ donation and living donation, a flawed story can make a lasting and dangerous impression. Donate Life Hollywood is trying to do something about it.

Story lines that mislead and even scare people (like a macabre thriller about an organ recipient) from registering as donors can cost lives. With 112,000+ people usually waiting years for an organ from a deceased donor in this country, every time someone decides not to register as an organ donor, the wait is that much longer. Donate Life Hollywood wants to hold Hollywood accountable and offer filmmakers accurate, real-life stories from donor families, recipients, and living donors.

You can download the free app, which offers an easy, convenient way to “report-a-myth.” The app lets me know when a new movie or TV episode with a donation-related story is about to air, so donors and advocates like me can check it out and let them know if the writers got it right. The app also includes up-to-date information on organ, eye, and tissue donation, with FAQs, and resources. Check out the Activate App here.

Admittedly, some exciting aspects of medical dramas are comparatively innocuous. One of my favorite TV shows years ago was “ER.” My heart would race as my favorite docs ran out to the parking lot when an ambulance pulled up. I think I knew that wasn’t happening much if ever in real life. (That certainly wasn’t the case when we came tearing up to the hospital 30 years ago as I was giving birth to my daughter in a Subaru—but that’s another story.)

There are already plenty of harmful myths about organ donation and living donation—we can’t afford to let Hollywood perpetuate them. Let’s help educate the story makers and be part of the solution!

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.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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!

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.

Kidney Recipient/Goalie Goes for the Green

Just read another wonderful piece about the kidney recipient/hockey goalie, David Ayres, who helped win the game for the Carolina Hurricanes last month. The fascinating stories have brought much-needed attention to kidney disease and transplant. In his honor, the Hurricanes sold No. 90 shirts, and part of the proceeds is going to the National Kidney Foundation in North Carolina.

Now Ayres is using his newfound fame to promote organ donation generally, with a different kind of shirt: a month-long campaign to support “Green Shirt Day” in Canada. The campaign honors the memory of Logan Boulet, a young Humboldt Broncos ice hockey player killed in a team bus crash in 2018. His organ donation prompted thousands of Canadians to register as organ donors. They call it the “Logan Boulet Effect.”

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.