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.

Why Is Living Donation So Important?

According to polls, the vast majority (90%) of Americans favor organ donation after death–yet, only about 60% are registered to be organ or tissue donors.

Just curious, what percentage of people in the United States would you guess die in such a way that traditional organ donation is possible? A third? A fifth? Not even close! Less than 1 percent: typically, in a hospital following an accident. So, no, not at home in their beds, not on impact in a car crash, often not even after a slow death from myriad diseases.

That little heart on your driver’s license is just one way to make it known that you want to be a donor. It takes just a minute to register online at many sites.

Traditional organ donation 101: When a dying person has been determined to be brain dead—no activity, no chance of survival—but the heart is still beating, blood is flowing to their internal organs. Once the organ has been removed from the blood supply, the sooner it’s placed in the recipient’s body, the better. With luck it’s off the blood supply for only a few minutes or hours. When it’s necessary to put it on an airplane, that interruption may last several hours—technically, 24 to 36 hours is acceptable, but the sooner it can be hooked up to the recipient’s veins, the better.

So most of the 100,000 people on the national waiting lists may languish several years–5 to 10 is not uncommon–before they receive a lifesaving organ (most of them are waiting for a kidney), and thousands don’t get one in time. Clearly, we need more people to be registered donors.

So, absolutely, register to be an organ and tissue donor (organdonor.gov is one of many sites where you can register in just a couple of minutes), and tell your family of your desire (and then urge them to do the same). But even if everyone complied, we’d still have an organ shortage because of that 99% that can’t be used in traditional donation.

That’s where live donation comes in. Not only does it add to the pool and shorten the wait, it even improves the outcome for most transplant recipients. And we need to remove obstacles for potential donors so that more people will consider being living donors. Tell your representatives–in your state and nationally–to support the Living Donor Protection Act and to increase funds for financial assistance for living donors and for early detection of chronic kidney disease.

An important health crisis as urgent and daunting as an organ shortage deserves more attention, more funding, and a meaningful commitment to finding creative solutions.

For related posts, resources, 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.

New Year’s Resolutions for Donors and Would-Be Donors

Whether you’re being evaluated as a living donor already, or just thinking about it, here are a few suggestions that will benefit you and your kidneys–wherever they happen to be.

1- Take good care of yourself (and your kidneys).

–Exercise regularly.

–Get plenty of rest.

–Stay hydrated.

–Eat a healthy diet.

2-For your safety and your recipient’s, be sure to get your Covid booster as soon as you’re eligible. Transplant recipients and anyone else who is immunocompromised, such as people with cancer or autoimmune diseases, can’t count on full protection from the vaccine. It’s all the more important that the rest of us add that protection.

3-Avoid ibuprofen and other NSAIDs—they’re hard on the kidneys for anyone—particularly important if you’re a donor or recipient.

4-Learn about kidney function. Kidneys are amazing!

5-Read up on all facets of kidney donation—for example, order a copy of The Insider’s Guide to Living Kidney Donation.

To all of you and your loved ones: a happy and healthy new year!

Why Not Just Wait for a Deceased Donor? Here’s Why

According to polls, about 90% of Americans say they favor organ donation, but only about 60% are registered donors.

Just curious: what percentage of people in the United States would you guess die in such a way that traditional organ donation is possible? A third? A fifth? Not even close. The answer is “less than 1%”: typically in a hospital following an accident. So, no, not at home in their beds, not on impact in a car crash, often not even after a slow death from myriad diseases.

Traditional organ donation 101: When a dying person has been determined to be brain dead—no activity, no chance of survival—but the heart is still beating, blood is flowing to their internal organs. Once the organ has been removed from the blood supply, the sooner it’s placed in the recipient’s body, the better. With luck it’s off the blood supply for only a few minutes or hours. When it’s necessary to put it on an airplane, that interruption may last several hours—technically, 24 to 36 hours is acceptable, but the sooner it can be hooked up to the recipient’s veins, the better.

So most of the 100,000 people on the national waiting lists may languish several years (5 to 10 is not uncommon) before they receive a lifesaving kidney, and thousands don’t get one in time. Clearly we need more people to be registered donors.

So, absolutely, register to be an organ and tissue donor after you die and tell your family of your desire (and then urge them to do the same). But even if everyone complied, we’d still have a kidney shortage because of that 99% that can’t be used in traditional donation.

That’s where live donation comes in. Not only does it add to the pool and shorten the wait, it even improves the outcome for most transplant recipients. And we need to remove obstacles for potential donors so that more people will consider being living donors. Tell your representatives–in your state and nationally–to support the Living Donor Protection Act and to increase funds for financial assistance for living donors and for early detection of chronic kidney disease.

An important health crisis as urgent and daunting as an organ shortage deserves more attention, more funding, and a meaningful commitment to finding creative solutions.

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

Relax, Living Donors: Your Kidney Function Is Probably Just Fine

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for awhile knows that I periodically post in frustration about the subject of donors being needlessly upset when their kidney function appears slightly lower than “normal.” It’s usually because their provider has wrongly concluded that the donor thus has stage 2 or 3 chronic kidney disease. That’s not merely my opinion–I have no medical credentials–that’s according to respected medical writings on the subject.

The eGFR (kidney function) scale they’re referencing is relevant mainly for people with two kidneys who may be showing signs of kidney disease.Well-meaning but uninformed providers–sometimes even nephrologists (kidney specialists)–often forget that a healthy donor is probably registering lower kidney function simply because he or she has one kidney.

Donors do lose kidney function, but the remaining kidney gets plumper and takes on some of that burden; their creatinine level (toxins in the blood) may be borderline for a few months but then typically stabilizes at a perfectly acceptable level. Mine, for example, 15 years after donation, is fine even for someone with two kidneys.

I recently heard of other examples of confusion on this point, so it bears repeating: a slightly higher creatinine and a slightly lower kidney function in an otherwise healthy living donor is just fine!

Transplant teams need to do a better job of preparing their donors for the likelihood of their having a “new normal.” Equally important, teams should routinely alert a donor’s PCP to this eventuality from the start–that is, when the donor leaves the team’s care soon after the donation.

Some frightened donors have run to consult a nephrologist, worried that they had developed chronic kidney disease. (I’m not suggesting that there are never instances of a living donor developing kidney disease, but those are rare. We’re talking here about a donor who is in good health and showing no signs of kidney disease.)

In Facebook support groups, even well-informed donors often describe having had to get a letter from the transplant team to “convince” their provider that the donor knew what he or she was talking about.

If even health care providers are not fully informed, is it any wonder that donors–not to mention the general public–are not fully informed about living donation? Given the urgent need for more living donors, our health care system and the kidney community need to do a better job of raising awareness about kidney disease and donation.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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).

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

I just read a stunning statistic that was extremely reassuring for living donors, so I just had to pass it on. You may already know that living donors have less than a 1% chance of someday developing kidney failure themselves. Did you know that in the “unlikely event” that a living kidney donor ever needs a transplant themselves, they are given priority on the national transplant waiting lists? That would mean they could receive a kidney from a deceased donor in a matter of weeks or months, not years—thus, probably avoiding dialysis. That’s certainly comforting.

But “unlikely event” takes on a whole new meaning when you see this statistic: Of the 60,000 people who donated between 1998 and 2007, only 11 were added to the transplant list! Do the math, that’s about 0.02%–two-hundredths of 1%. And if you were part of a kidney swap or donor chain through the National Kidney Registry, you would receive priority to receive a living donor kidney. I’d say those are damn good odds.

NC WELD: Time, Passion, and Commitment

Last week was the first local NC WELD (as in Women Encouraging Living Donation) meeting of the year, and I’d looked forward to seeing the Triangle group again. The last meeting, held at my house in May, featured two Duke transplant surgeons. Unfortunately, September’s meeting drew a very small group. We met at the home of executive director Deanna Kerrigan (formerly, Mitchell) and caught up on summer travels and donation advocacy activities (yes, they knew about my National Kidney Foundation Kidney Advocacy Committee approval!) over yummy mini-pizzas and brownies. Most of all, we brainstormed ways to spread the word about living donation and, specifically, the WELD Triangle group, with information packets for prospective donors, flyers at transplant centers, and lots more.

Building a new group in a region takes time, passion, and commitment. WELD will get there one living donor at a time. Happy to be part of the effort! Looking forward to a full house next time.

With Katherine Ramirez and Deanna Kerrigan of Donate Life NC, at the September 2019 WELD meeting.

White House Kidney Health Initiative—Wow!

It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is.

I hesitated to post anything on it till I’d had a chance to digest it and try to learn if it’s as great as it seems. Frankly, even if it’s less than it appears—some of it rests on the continuation of the Affordable Care Act, need I say more?—and takes longer to go into effect than we think, it’s still a big deal. Given that it’s one of the biggest sets of changes in kidney health care in five decades, attention must be paid. As my friends at WELD (Women Encouraging Living Donation) put it, “Regardless of your feelings about the messenger, the message here is breaking the logjam…” (the “logjam” being the often 5-to-10-year wait for the roughly 100,000 people waiting for a kidney in the United States).

The whole system is in need of repair, so not surprisingly, the executive order/kidney health initiative has a few pieces to it:

1. Helping living donors. The exciting decision to cover a donor’s lost wages, child care, and other family expenses (and expand the pool of those eligible) alone can be a game changer for so many potential donors. This is the proposal that I provided public comment for in May when the federal Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA’s) advisory committee was considering it [see post]. Waitlist Zero founder/director Josh Morrison (a living kidney donor himself) whose organization was behind the effort, estimates conservatively that the revised policy could increase the number of living donors by 25%. Simply put, helping living donors helps kidney patients. Getting a kidney from a living donor not only shortens that recipient’s wait, it removes one person from the waitlist for a deceased organ and generally offers a better outcome.

2. Early Detection and Research. The new Medicare fee structure will provide incentives for physicians to take the time to discuss and screen kidneys at an earlier point. For example, people with diabetes or high blood pressure, particularly African Americans with those conditions, are at higher risk for chronic kidney disease, which is a gradual loss of kidney function.  For most people, unless they have a family history, it’s not on their radar. I’ve heard several young people say that they didn’t learn their kidneys were failing until they had a screening at a health fair or went to the ER for something else.  That’s why it’s called a “silent killer”—it often has no noticeable symptoms until it reaches the point of kidney failure and sometimes not even then. The initiative also calls for increased funding for research.

3. In-Home Dialysis. The initiative aims to enable most dialysis patients to do it at home (currently only 12% do so by a variety of options, including while they sleep). It plans to improve support to make it more feasible financially and logistically. Life on dialysis is an enormous burden, sapping one’s energy, strength, and time. For the majority of patients, who receive it at a center, it means traveling three days a week to the facility, which might be more than an hour’s drive from home, and being connected to a machine, currently 4 hours at a time. My son, who was on dialysis for 20 months before his transplant in 2006, recalls being on dialysis as “the worst experience of my life” [see post]. Doing dialysis at home, which, admittedly would still not be everyone’s preference, would make it easier for more dialysis patients to continue working.

4. Overhauling allocation of deceased organs. The initiative aims to make thousands more kidneys available by reducing the number discarded for a variety of reasons, due to waste and for medical factors. The system is very complicated, so I won’t even try to analyze these changes. The trend in recent years already has been to consider the benefits of using “high-risk” donor organs; organ transplants that were once almost unthinkable—say, between HIV-positive donors and recipients—have been successful. By the way, the oft-cited “national waiting list” is actually a network of myriad regional lists. When a deceased organ becomes available, they look for the best match, usually in the same region so it can be transplanted ASAP, which can lead to geographic disparities. “Matching” a donor and recipient isn’t just a question of blood type—it’s also based on age, how long someone’s been on the list, and other factors. Also, to be clear, the waitlist isn’t like a numbered list, where you might move from number 2,000 to number 1,999 and so on.

Some of these steps will take years, but some are expected to begin as soon as January 2020. But kidney patients and their families and friends should certainly rejoice at this news. I know I do.