Avila Beach, CA
Living Kidney Donor
“Maybe I couldn’t change the world but I could change one person’s world.”
When I went back to college at age 48, I never expected the biggest lesson would be one that couldn’t be learned in a classroom. A chance meeting with a young woman with kidney disease ended up setting me on a path I never planned to take. Upon learning of my classmate’s probable fate, I offered to donate a kidney but the student turned me down, partly because she wasn’t ready for surgery and partly due to outdated rules that disallowed non-related donors at most hospitals.
Knowing that people were dying due to these prohibitive policies prompted me to write a class paper arguing for obvious changes that needed to be made in a broken system. The more research I did, the more determined I became to be part of the solution – to put my kidney where my mouth was, so to speak. I love this quote from Jane Goodall: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” I realized that maybe I couldn’t change the world but I could change one person’s world.
While writing that paper several years ago I stumbled upon a website featuring absolutely heartbreaking profiles of patients needing donors. I felt a special connection with one of those people – a hospice nurse and new grandmother – and offered to be tested as her living donor. My story took a lot of unexpected twists and turns, but four years later my kidney started a chain of transplants that began in San Francisco and ended in Chicago or San Diego—I’m still not sure how far the dominoes eventually toppled.
In the beginning, I didn’t speak of my kidney donation except to close friends and family because I worried it would move the focus off the people on the waiting list. By that time I’d witnessed firsthand the suffering of those who undergo dialysis month after month, year after year, countless people hoping for a kidney that might not come in time to save them. Eventually I realized my discomfort was nothing compared to the suffering that kidney patients and their families experience on a daily basis. To me, these were the real heroes. By not sharing my story I’d lose a huge opportunity to educate people about the tragic shortage of organs. In doing so, I’d hopefully inspire altruism in others.
I made a 180 degree turn and ended up writing a book about my experience – Lost in Transplantation: Memoir of an Unconventional Organ Donor. The donor-recipient journey was also followed in an award-winning documentary Perfect Strangers that recently premiered on the PBS World Channel’s America ReFramed series. I now travel the country speaking about living donation and cultivating kindness in one’s community. I’m honored to be a Donate Life Ambassador and participate on the advisory board for the American Living Organ Donor Fund. I help moderate Kidney Transplant Donors & Recipients, a Facebook community with more than 11,000 members seeking support and advice. I also make myself available to mentor potential donors that are referred to me by transplant hospitals and other organizations.
In other words, what started out as a compassionate response to a single individual has blossomed into a far-reaching connection with a multitude of wonderful people I now call my friends. I have been blessed with deeper meaning and greater purpose in my life. People often thank me for what I did, but to my mind the gifts I received were much greater than the one I gave.