July 26, 2013

On June 25, less than a day after our kidney transplant surgeries, my daughter-in-law walked into my hospital room at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, her nurse guiding her on one side, my son on the other. There she was, the recipient of my kidney, beaming at the foot of my bed. That’s when I realized the full meaning of “to give is to receive.”

My Virginia driver’s license already designated me as an organ donor when I found out a few years ago that my daughter-in-law might one day need a kidney transplant. I told her then that I would consider it a gift to me to be able to donate a kidney to someone I loved while I was still alive. But my son didn’t like the idea of his 65-year-old mother undergoing such an invasive procedure. When the time came, he said, he would be the one to give a kidney to his wife — assuming he was deemed compatible.

This February, as her kidney function continued to decline, my daughter-in-law was approved for inclusion on the national kidney transplant waiting list, making her eligible for a kidney from a compatible donor if one became available. But we knew this could take years. My son had already begun the testing needed to determine if he could serve as her donor. He is white and she is Asian, so he was extremely relieved when he learned they were a match. When their doctor remarked on how fortunate this was for my daughter-in-law, my son replied that not only was he willing to donate, his mother was, too.

This immediately piqued the doctor’s interest. While kidneys from living donors last, on average, about 2½ years longer than those from cadavers, they don’t last forever. The doctor explained that my daughter-in-law might need another transplant down the road — when I might be too old to donate. If I were found to be compatible, he said, I could donate a kidney first, allowing my son to serve as her donor later. After he considered the logic of this advice, and learned that the surgery could be done laparoscopically, my son’s concerns were eased. A few days later, my journey as a kidney donor began.

After successfully completing many tests and exams with my personal physician in Virginia, I flew to Seattle in April for even more testing. With each exam, test, scan and X-ray, I prayed fervently that I would be healthy enough to donate, and as I “passed” each test, I became more and more at peace. On May 1, when I received the phone call telling me I was approved, I was euphoric and very thankful.

Finally, the day arrived. When the anesthesiologist took my pulse and listened to my heart prior to surgery, he said, “You’re not afraid, are you?”

“No, not at all,” I said. And I truly wasn’t. I just wanted the transplant to be safely behind us.

I woke that evening to my son and husband standing at my bedside, telling me that the harvesting of my left kidney went beautifully and that it was working well in my daughter-in-law. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. It was one of the most gratifying moments of my life.

Barely two days later, I was released from the hospital; now, five weeks later, I feel so good I have to remind myself I just had surgery. More important, my daughter-in-law says she has not felt so good in years and feels like she has her life back. On July 24, I got an e-mail from her that said: “Happy One-Month Anniversary!” We do have something to celebrate.

The National Kidney Foundation reports that kidney disease kills more people each year than does breast or prostate cancer. It also states that nearly 96,000 people in the United States are on the national kidney transplant waiting list and that 13 people die each day while waiting. Knowing these sobering statistics, my daughter-in-law and I both feel extremely fortunate that our transplant was successful and happened in a relatively short period of time.

For me, this has been the ultimate win-win situation. Being able to witness my daughter-in-law benefit from one of my kidneys has been one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.