Thanksgiving Dinners and Donors

Every Thanksgiving at my house, we go around the table after dinner and talk about what we’re each thankful for–a fairly typical American tradition that for us started when my adult kids were little kids.The usual topics come up, of course: being together, good health, good news, good food. Naturally, one not-so-typical topic also has come up every year for nearly two decades: kidneys. So I decided to devote this Thanksgiving blog post to kidneys and living donation.

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I’ll start. I am thankful for

  • my right kidney (aka Righty). My son, Paul, is thankful for my left (both are doing well, thanks). Righty has managed to give me what would be a solidly normal kidney function for someone my age with two kidneys–and she’s done it all alone!
  • the transplant team at the University of North Carolina Kidney Center that supported both of us skillfully and caringly throughout the donation and transplant process 16 and a half years ago.

So much has happened in the field of living donation since then, and prospective donors can now take advantage of options that didn’t practically exist in the early 2000s. So, even though my family didn’t benefit, I’m thankful that the recent donors I know and the would-be donors who have written to me in recent years can. Here are just a few of those options:

  • Paired donation—not around when I donated—enables someone who isn’t a match for their intended recipient to donate a kidney to someone else to enable their recipient to get another, better-matched one, when he or she needs it. Often they donate to someone they don’t know–a “nondirected donation.”
  • Expanded financial assistance for living donors–including nondirected ones–to cover lost wages and donation-related expenses like travel, childcare, and eldercare. In addition to organizations such as the National Kidney Registry and the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation (see Resources), a big federal program that for many years covered only travel expenses–the National Living Donor Assistance Center (NLDAC)–has substantially expanded its financial assistance in the past couple of years. Thankfully, we managed without all that back then, but our situation was a best-case scenario in many ways.
  • State-level living donor protections in 28 states, offering benefits that range from basic job protections to paid leave for state employees to tax credits. The list is growing while the federal version gets tantalizingly close to passage.

Now it’s your turn. If kidneys and/or living donation is a big topic in your house too, you might want to reflect on these worthy items for thanks giving after you finish your pie. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

For related posts, resources, and information on The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

Contributor Spotlight: Emotional Challenges of Caregiving

Some people support living donors and transplant recipients not only on a practical basis but emotionally. Two of The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation‘s contributors are authorities on the subject. One is a licensed professional counselor, Kathleen Fitzgerald, whose clients often include families contending with the emotional fallout of kidney failure, transplant, or any serious chronic illness. The other, Sharon Williams, also has a professional perspective. She is a researcher who specializes in family caregivers for someone with a severe chronic illness.

Contributor Sharon Williams blows out the candles at a recent birthday celebration with family and friends.

Sharon also knows the subject firsthand, because for nearly 20 years she was a caregiver for her spouse while he was dealing with chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and later a transplant. In her chapter of the book, she explains that she eventually realized that her research hadn’t prepared her for the difficult emotional challenges of this kind of caregiving. She shares the valuable lessons she learned along the way. Spoiler alert: it’s wise to let the patient take the lead in planning how to proceed and be ready to support those very personal decisions.

Sharon has since transitioned to phased retirement, working roughly half-time until she retires from her current university position in two years. Today she enjoys spending time with family and friends, including her church family, “a blessing I treasure more and more each day.” Sharon also enjoy walks with her dog and dancing, especially line dancing.

Contributor Kathleen Fitzgerald counsels families facing emotional challenges of a health crisis.

Kathleen’s chapter describes the various ways that families contend with highly charged emotional situations related to health crises. She explains the diverse approaches people try–often unsuccessfully–and then offers helpful case studies of different scenarios, describing why some approaches were beneficial. These different perspectives will resonate with many readers–regardless of whether or not their family member is considering donation or transplant.

It all comes down to the undeniable truth that donation and transplant are far more than medical decisions and experiences. They touch families and friends in profound, multifaceted ways. The ripple effect extends far beyond the individual and even the family unit.

Be sure to read Sharon’s and Kathleen’s complete chapters. If you haven’t already ordered your copy of The Insider’s Guide, you can do so here.

For related posts, resources, and more information on The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

Still Advocating After All These Years

Last week I had a day of back-to-back virtual meetings with congressional staffers–plus one congressman!–to talk about the Living Donor Protection Act and kidney health in general. Hard for me to believe that this was my fifth such event. Unlike most of the others I’ve been a part of, this one represented a partnership of 22 kidney-health organizations–including the National Kidney Foundation, of course–led by the American Society of Nephrology.

The good news: The LDPA is closer to being passed than at any time since it was first introduced in 2014.

The bad news: With Congress adjourning soon, if it doesn’t make it across the finish line now, we’ll have to start all over in the next session of Congress. (That thought is not only depressing but overwhelming because of logistical issues that I’ll save for another post.) Consequently, our “ask” was not just for cosponsorship of the bill by those members who hadn’t yet signed on but for help from all of them to get the bill to the floor.

As I related here after one such day of meetings, I’ve come to understand what the trainers have told us repeatedly: it’s the personal stories that will stay with and move a staffer or member of Congress. They’ve had a gazillion meetings and heard all the appalling numbers before: that nearly 100,000 Americans are waiting for a kidney and at least 13 die every day because they didn’t get one in time. They know all that on an intellectual level. It’s not the same as hearing what it means for a mother to see her son grow more and more listless and depressed as he struggles through long months of dialysis.

I was joined by an impressive group of fellow advocates who represented an interesting range of perspectives: Brenda Johnson, from the Veterans Transplantation Association, who told of veterans struggling with kidney failure or having to fight with insurance companies to get life insurance if they donate; Lauren Drew, NKF’s very savvy governmental affairs director, who’s been my mentor for such meetings since I first became a Kidney Advocacy Committee member; Dr. Hostensia Beng, a pediatric nephrologist, who shared heartbreaking stories of parents trying desperately to find a kidney donor for their young child; and Dr. Gentzon Hall, a nephrologist/genetics researcher at Duke Medical Center (just down the road from me), whom I’d met last year when we were on the same advocacy team. He emphasized the dire need for more research funding.

The highlight of the day had to be our meeting with Rep. Gregory Murphy, a former transplant surgeon. He knows firsthand how transplant transforms lives, and he promised not only to cosponsor the Living Donor Protection Act but to do all he could to help move it across the finish line before Congress adjourns.

It’s soo close. C’mon, LDPA!

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

National Foundation for Transplants, Trees, and Me

When I launched this website in early 2019, my goal was simple: to raise awareness of living donation by sharing my story of donating to my son, along with timely posts and practical resources to help donors and would-be donors–and anyone interested in supporting people with chronic kidney disease. I threw in a dose of self-deprecating humor because I’ve seen how well it helps information go down.

Photo by Syed Qaarif Andrabi on Pexels.com

I had no sense of how many people I could reach. The website’s following has certainly grown but continues to be a modest audience. And if I don’t spread the word on social media about each new post, far fewer people see it (after all, if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to tweet about it, how in the world does anyone know it fell?).

So, I’m excited, honored (and downright tickled) to announce that the National Foundation for Transplants discovered my blog and wants to amplify the sound of the falling trees–I mean, blog posts!

NFT has asked me to be a guest contributor and run one of my posts once a month on its site. Partnering with such a large, respected organization to spread the word about the importance of living donation–all kinds–is a fantastic opportunity.

An individual donor advocate–particularly a nontech-savvy one like me–can’t hope to make much of an impact alone. Certainly, for government-related aims, having a major, moneyed organization behind you is essential. Being an active kidney advocate for the National Kidney Foundation, and to a lesser extent, a UNOS Ambassador, has been extremely gratifying.

But I’ve also wanted to reach out personally to potential donors because I believe that my story is more relatable than most: I donated to my son, not a stranger; our family had no history of kidney disease; and, maybe this most of all, I’m not an adventurous person, I’m a wimp (I faint at flu shots). And, for goodness sake, I’m no saint or heroine. Most anyone in my situation would have done the same if they could.

I hope that NFT can help me share my perspective and my insights with a wider audience. When you join forces with dedicated, like-minded people and organizations, anything’s possible. Thank you, NFT, for helping this donor advocate amplify her passionate but quiet voice.

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

Contributor Spotlight: Workplace Friends as Donors

Many people assume that you have to be a blood relative to donate your kidney to someone. And in the early decades of living donation, that was pretty much the case. Family members are still the largest single group of living donors, but the percentage of unrelated donors has been growing. This contributor spotlight highlights two of our book’s contributors who learned firsthand that a donor might actually be someone you know from work. (Afterward they often do feel like family.)

One of our contributors–Linda Watson–chose to donate to a colleague friend (my co-author, Betsy!). Another, Joe Reichle, instead received his kidney from a former student’s spouse.

Linda Watson and husband, Joel, on the Georgetown waterfront in Washington, DC

Linda had worked with Betsy for years before she learned how serious her friend’s health problems were. Still, as Linda relates in her chapter, like many people back in 2003 she didn’t realize that she herself could possibly be eligible to donate. But when she saw several other colleagues step up to be tested, she knew that this was what she wanted to do.

Linda explains that her decision also coincided with a time in her life when she very much needed to “do something life affirming.”

Receiving Linda’s kidney enabled Betsy to get off dialysis; produce urine once again (“I never thought I’d get so emotional about seeing a bag of urine,” Linda writes, describing her first visit to Betsy’s hospital room); and return to her position at the university full time. (About 17 years later Betsy would need another transplant–while our book was in production, in fact. Happily, she’s back to working full time again.)

Today Linda, who is in phased retirement from her work in speech and hearing sciences, clearly leads a full life. Besides gardening; traveling with her husband, Joel, albeit limited by COVID; singing in the choir and participating in other activities at her church, she recently tried her hand at voice lessons. She looks forward to traveling more extensively as the pandemic eases.

Joe Reichle has polycystic kidney disease, like many in his family, several of whom died relatively young. He begins his chapter by explaining that as a young man, he’d always figured that that would be his fate too. Instead, Joe, a retired university professor in the Midwest, led a normal adult life for 30+ years before the word transplant ever surfaced.

When Joe learned that the wait for a deceased donor kidney could be five years, he considered a live-kidney transplant in the hope of getting a kidney before he needed dialysis: a preemptive transplant. Knowing too that a living donation typically has a better outcome, he reluctantly let it be known that he needed a transplant (“I’m a person who doesn’t like to ask for things”). Joe relates in his chapter how surprised and moved he was to see colleagues and former colleagues seek him out, wanting to donate to him.

Many would-be donors were eliminated, and when a former student volunteered but later became pregnant, her husband fortunately volunteered to donate in her stead. Since his transplant, Joe says, despite other health issues, “for the most part, my health has been very good.”

He and his wife enjoy a comparatively quiet life in northwestern Michigan on East Grand Traverse Bay, where they enjoy photographing the wildlife, which includes bald eagles, red foxes, deer, chipmunks, raccoons, and the occasional bobcat.

They are less sedentary, he says, since the arrival of a lively two-year-old weimaraner-lab mix, named Rosie, who enjoys the water. Joe also still “dabbles” in intervention research for children with communication delays.

Even though Joe’s donor, Robert Drager, and family live far away in Pennsylvania, the two families often shared special occasions in the first several years and have stayed in touch.

Nearly 20 years post transplant, Joe has some words of advice to anyone considering a transplant, which he calls “one of the best decisions that I have made. Your quality of life will be significantly enhanced,” he says. And, as for your family, “they will spend less time worrying about you.”

We think those are both awfully good reasons.

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

Donors Don’t Get Paid, But the Rewards Are Still Real

Every once in a while, I mindlessly scroll through my website stats to see how a particular blog post or month of posts fared. I was curious when I noticed “Best Views Ever” (in more than three years): November 28, 2020. Hmm, what might that have been, I wondered. Naturally, I had to check it out.

I was delighted–and honestly, not too surprised–to see the title: “Kidney Donors Don’t Get Paid, But the Rewards Are Very Real.” I remember that a lot of living donors told me they’d read it while nodding in agreement, and many people pointed out that even though these things were pretty obvious to donors, transplant centers usually don’t give them enough weight. I just reread the post to see how it holds up nearly two years later. I can defend every word, so I’ve decided to reprint it here (rather than link to it) so it will have today’s date–and not be limited to kidney donors:

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In previous posts, I’ve described some of the enormous benefits of a live vs. deceased-donor kidney transplant for the recipient, but did you know that there are many very real benefits to the living donor, too? For family members or couples, the benefits are nothing short of dramatic. And I’m not just talking about feel-good points.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For a family, the practical benefits can be as concrete as money in the bank. A spouse or parent whose ability to work was limited by dialysis for a long period may gradually be able to resume a full-time schedule–maybe even launch a new career. That can substantially improve the family’s ailing financial health as well.

For family caregivers, particularly, donating a kidney to the loved one you’ve been caring for can bring huge relief. The reduced stress and no doubt improved sleep can have considerable benefits in energy, mood, overall outlook, and, as a result, even job satisfaction.

Then there’s the extraordinary motivation of saving a loved one’s life or turning it around. A living donor I know who’d donated to her husband described her decision as “purely selfish. I wasn’t about to lose him,” she insisted. I know the feeling.

Seeing someone you love–in my case, my adult son–who’d been pale, weak, and listless for months or years gradually become their old self again is pretty powerful. And a donor whose partner wasn’t interested in intimacy during a long period of ill health may see a positive change in their relationship.

Want to improve your social life? Give your partner a kidney! Couples who have been uncomfortable for a long time about socializing—whether because of physical obstacles or simply due to the dialysis patient’s lack of energy or interest—may soon be able to enjoy evenings out with friends or family.

For anyone who donates a kidney—even to someone they don’t know—the benefits are nearly universal:

The feeling of personal gratification is indescribable. Knowing that you’ve helped give someone—anyone—a shot at a healthy, productive life—is an extraordinary feeling. Living donors in studies report a boost in self-esteem, and 9 out of 10 say they would do it again. Through donor-support groups I’m active in on Facebook, I’ve been struck by how life changing the experience has felt for most of us, including the few who have later had complications or whose recipient didn’t fare well for as long as expected.

A fascinating journal article inspired this post. The researchers argue that for the above reasons and more, transplant centers considering a potential donor’s relative risk might do well to acknowledge and give weight to the undeniable tangible benefits for certain donors.

“Van Pilsum Rasmussen, S. E., M. Henderson, J. Kahn, and D. Segev. “Considering Tangible Benefit for Interdependent Donors: Extending a Risk–Benefit Framework in Donor Selection.” American Journal of Transplantation 17, no. 10 (Oct. 2017): 2567-2571.

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

How’s Your State Doing on Donor Protection Measures?

In my last post I promised information about living donation-related protections and benefits, by state. As I mentioned, while awaiting passage of a federal Living Donor Protection Act, more than half of states now have their own version (28 at last count). In fact, like the one we’re supporting in North Carolina, some actually are more generous than the federal version (by including paid leave for state employees who donate).

United States Map With State Names Pdf Valid Printable Map Of | Printable Map Of The United States Pdf – Printable US Maps

But the LDPA is just one way that states can encourage living donation. Financial supports and job protections are other critical ones. Are you considering being a living donor, or have you donated recently? Do you know what the relevant tax provisions and protections are in your state–or in a state you may be looking at? It’s worth doing your homework.

The National Kidney Foundation has a terrific resource in a map you can click on to find out what donation-related laws and protections a particular state offers. Does it have a Living Donor Protection Act, or similar insurance-discrimination protections? Does it also have job-protected living donor leave for private employees? How about for state employees? What about paid leave? What about tax deductions? Even better, what about tax credits?

The American Kidney Fund website also features an invaluable resource: a state report card. It rates each state based on important donation-related measures and provides an overall rating on how well that state encourages living donation and removes barriers. Not surprisingly, only a few states merit an A: Arkansas, Connecticut, and Louisiana. Glad to see that more than a dozen at least get Bs, but nearly as many have Cs, a few get Ds (including, alas, North Carolina).

Unfortunately, nine states rate an F–that is, these states failed miserably because they have no donation-related measures in place: Alabama, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming.

The tragedy is that none of these donation measures is really controversial–they shouldn’t be so damn hard to pull off. They are simple, reasonable, common sense ways that a state can demonstrate its support for people who help save a life in this way. In fact, not only does encouraging living donation save lives, for kidney patients it reduces costs by reducing the number of people on dialysis (Medicare pays about $90,000 a year per dialysis patient).

With 106,000 people in this country on the national transplant waiting list (most of them needing a kidney), it seems that the very least we can do is remove the barriers to living donation.

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

Kidneyversary: 16 Years and Counting

In case you’ve only recently discovered this blog, you should know that I donated my kidney to my adult son, Paul, on June 27, 2006 (he shared his reflections in a 2019 post). This week we arrived at the Sweet 16 mark! Both of my kidneys, by the way, are still going strong, faithfully doing their job–just in different bodies.

The Comeback Kidney, as “he” was named, is healthy, and Paul’s overall kidney function is stable. Mine, happily, is perfectly normal, particularly considering that people’s kidney function declines with age, and I just turned 74. The other important measure is for creatinine–to show how well the kidney is filtering toxins–and I’m proud to say that mine is an impressive .84 (under 1.1 is normal for women).

So, 16 years out from donation, even though I’m a lot older than I was then, I’m very healthy and active (read: I walk and hike). I was never athletic, but lots of living donors are. If you’re a potential donor and have any concerns about donation cramping your lifestyle, learn about the Kidney Donor Athletes. They enjoy ultra-marathons, triathlons, and in March they celebrated World Kidney Day by climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak!

Our kidney celebrations are a bit more mundane. We went out to dinner to honor the occasion, as we do every year at this time. (The notable exception was, of course, 2020, when we “celebrated” the best we could in our front yard.)

For related posts and information on my new book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation, be sure to explore the rest of my website.

Contributor Spotlight: Doing All They Can to Help Donors Donate

Some of the most dedicated, ardent advocates of living donation I know are neither living donors nor transplant recipients themselves. That’s surely the case for these two contributors–Tammy Wright and Jenine Lewis–to our book, The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation.

For Tammy, who has helped donor and recipient pairs as a transplant coordinator for nearly 30 years at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, it’s a profession she deeply loves. For Jenine, who came ever so close to donating one of her own kidneys, it’s a passion and an avocation.

Tammy Wright, a veteran donor nurse coordinator.

You may think that once someone is approved as a donor, it means smooth sailing ahead and just depends on everyone’s schedule. Alas, that’s not the case for many donors and recipients. Even before COVID came along, life always had a way of throwing complications in people’s paths even when the stakes are frighteningly high.

Example? Recipient gets so sick before the scheduled transplant that it has to be postponed indefinitely. Or donor gets the flu and needs to reschedule. Or an overweight donor learns that he’s prediabetic and has to start an extended period of dieting and nutrition counseling. I could go on.

In Tammy’s book chapter, “Helping Overcome Transplant Obstacles,” she relates several daunting situations she has helped her patients navigate. Many of the creative solutions she draws on were not available when she started out in this profession (or even when I donated in 2006). Paired donation (kidney exchange), notably, often holds the answer to a donation problem, and Tammy’s chapter describes some pioneering efforts.

Tammy movingly relates how she’s worked–and cried–with patients at each new disappointment. Named “Nurse of the Year” at Sharp in 2020, Tammy is as modest as she is private. “I am pretty boring but love what I do and enjoy helping people get transplanted,” she says simply.

When she’s not working, Tammy enjoys being active in Transplant Trekkers, a nonprofit San Diego group dedicated to raising awareness of living organ donation. (She proudly admits also to being a dog lover.)

Jenine Lewis, a donation advocate, seen here at Yosemite National Park with her husband, Alan.

Like Tammy, Jenine is a San Diegan who does all she can to support living donation, through Transplant Trekkers. Jenine’s book chapter, “How a Would-be Donor Became an Advocate,” relates how she set out determined to donate her kidney to her good friend. After a very long, circuitous route, she finally got the green light for donor surgery in 2016 until…

We’ll let Jenine’s chapter tell what happened and why. Though she was initially heartbroken about not being able to gift her own kidney, Jenine says she soon learned that she could provide valuable help to other potential donors. She’s been an active volunteer in raising awareness of living organ donation in the San Diego area. She often counsels others who have been similarly disappointed and shows them how they can still help their intended recipient.

A youthful grandmother of three, Jenine enjoys hiking, as you can see from the photo. Obviously, Transplant Trekkers, which interestingly raises awareness of living organ donation through virtual, customized hikes, is a perfect fit.

Fun Fact: Transplant Trekkers is the (independent) re-creation of the original WELD (Women Encouraging Living Donation) San Diego group. WELD later teamed up with Donate Life America and added chapters around the country. It now accepts men, so the acronym officially stands for We Encourage Living Donation.)

Diane Brockington, herself a living donor and a tireless champion for living donation, founded WELD in 2015. She now leads the original San Diego group, which renamed itself the Transplant Trekkers. It was Diane who introduced me to WELD and all these impressive women.

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.