“It’s what we learned in kindergarten. If you have two of something and you only need one, share it,” said Barbara Thorp, my father’s living kidney donor.
Could saving a life really be as simple as that?
It was 24 hours post-transplant, and I’d just helped my father make the steady, miraculous walk down the hall from his inpatient room to Barbara’s.
I’d watched my father deteriorate for months; his muscles weakened, his complexion turned ashen. I could measure his life slipping away by the way he sounded when he answered the phone.
Now, Barbara’s kidney was already doing its job mightily — producing urine, restoring his complexion, giving him his voice back. The man we had nicknamed Lazarus because he overcame serious illnesses so many times would, for now, rise up again.
Nationally, more than 118,000 people currently await an organ transplant; nearly 100,000 of them are waiting for a kidney transplant. So far in 2013, nearly 1,400 living donor kidney transplants, also called altruistic donations, which typically yield better outcomes than deceased donor transplants, have occurred.
Why do some decide to give a kidney, bone marrow, a portion of a liver, or sign up to be an organ donor?
It is an honor and a privilege to help,” Barbara said almost as if she were the lucky one. She is a family friend who got the call that she was a match for my father two years to the day after her own husband’s passing, a twist of fate and timing. As a deeply spiritual and religious woman, she saw this as God’s sign this was meant to be.
I can’t help but wonder if part of her sacrifice was to try and spare us the loss she had recently experienced, or if it was a way to reaffirm how precious life is. Perhaps, as with many Good Samaritans, the potential risks simply paled in comparison to the possibility of saving a life. Research suggests that living kidney donation has an overall positive impact on donors, and the ability to contribute to a better life for another person was a predominant feature of their choices to donate.
None of his close relatives were eligible to donate for medical reasons, but my father is one of the fortunate ones in a system that does not guarantee happy endings. A kidney cancer survivor, he’d lived with one remaining kidney and with moderate kidney failure for years, but his progression to total renal failure and then transplantation were comparatively quick, a matter of months. Some live on dialysis for years as they wait for a match; some never find one.
He was fortunate to have had a long waiting list of people willing to go through the screening process for him. From his position of extreme vulnerability, this was one of the most humbling facets of his journey.
Since the first kidney transplant in 1954, the field of transplantation has raised questions we continue to grapple with today. Recently, the story of 10-year-old cystic fibrosis patient Sarah Murnaghan’s fight for lungs prompted many questions about transplantation ethics and allocation. Her parents successfully sued for her right to be eligible for adult lungs, citing the arbitrary nature of the rule that required patients to be 12 years of age, and the lack of pediatric donor lungs. She underwent two separate double lung transplants.
The Murnaghan case highlights what scarce and valuable resources donor organs are, and the complexity involved in these life and death decisions. At the same time, I can’t help but think about Barbara’s response when faced with the possibility of saving a life. Once the transplant team determined she was a good match, that she would not put herself at undue risk, and that she had the social support necessary to recover, the decision was ultimately a simple one for her.
Four months after the surgery, Barbara says she is feeling great. My father celebrated his birthday last week, and I raised my glass in her name, mindful of fact that from here on, all birthdays, holidays, and our family’s collective memories will be inextricably linked to her decision. Beneath the politics, the bureaucracy, and all the challenges, I fear we sometimes overlook our most precious resource of all — the incredible human capacity to help, when given the opportunity.