Your first thought about love is caring for someone or something deeply.
You care enough to donate your time, money and even pledge to spend the rest of your life with them in a ceremony that usually costs you thousands of dollars and in front of hundreds of people.
For family members, you often find yourself sacrificing plans and hard-earned cash to make sure your loved ones have what they need, even if it’s just seeing your face in the stands at games.
But what about giving up one of your organs? Could you do it for a family member? What about someone you don’t even know?
The people that work at Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Abdominal Organ Transplant Center see it all the time.
“We have more donors now that are not related to their recipients than relatives of recipients, including friends and wives. There’s also a lot more strangers than there used to be,” said Dr. Colleen Jay, a transplant surgeon at the center. “One of the most common things I’ve seen is people meeting each other now thru Facebook. We also see a lot of donors who come forward after reading stories or seeing something on the news, realized the need, and wanted to see if they could be a potential donor.”
According to its website, the WFBH Abdominal Organ Transplant Center, is the largest kidney and pancreas transplant center in the state. The 50-year-old program performs three types of transplants at the center: kidney, pancreas, and a combination of a kidney/pancreas transplant since pancreas transplants are rarely done alone. According to the website, there are 160 to 180 transplants performed annually, and the program is ranked top 30 most active kidney and pancreas transplants programs in the nation. To date, there have been 3,389 total kidney transplants and 290 pancreas transplants completed at the center.
According to Jay, transplant surgeon at the center, there are currently 91,315 people on the kidney transplant list right now and almost 108,000 people waiting on the organ transplant. She said that while it is more common to see more female donors than males, all donors are unique and fulfilling a need that everyone takes care of.
“I think of all kidney donors as altruistic because you’re truly giving of yourself to help someone else. They really don’t get anything in return other than getting whatever emotional benefits they get out of knowing that they’ve done this wonderful thing and caring for people they love,” she said. “To me, donors are people who take care of their community. Whether they’re donating to their husbands, their child, a friend from church, or someone they saw in the local newspaper - these are the people who have figured out how to step up and take care of their community. They’re far more common than people realize.”
Transplant surgery is done to replace one of your organs with a healthy one from another individual. The center boasts about being committed to patients from the beginning of their journey to the end, including the pre-transplant process of education classes and placement on the waitlist to surgery and recovery.
While many patients wait a very long time to find a match, some patients have potential living donors that can come to their rescue, “fast-tracking” the process of finding an organ that may meet their needs. A living kidney donor is someone who voluntarily donates their kidney to someone who needs a new kidney. A person only needs one kidney to survive, so for those who need a new kidney, a living donor is often a viable option as long as the donor is compatible. Usually, the most successful living kidney transplants come from family members and come from unrelated donors such as spouses, friends, or strangers.
“Many people wait many years for a kidney from the list, and in fact, many older patients will age out before they get high enough on the list to get a transplant. They will either get too sick or die before they get access to an organ. Living Donor Kidney Transplant is sort of their way to avoid that reality of waiting too long or waiting a long time for a kidney,” said Dr. Jay.
Transplants can be planned ahead of time, around the donors and recipients schedule, and a living donor kidney “usually works immediately and lasts longer with better kidney function than a deceased donor kidney. On average, a living donor kidney can last as long as 15 to 20 years compared to 8 to 12 years with deceased donor kidneys,” according to the website.
“Those people who are able to find living donors also have longer survival. They live longer, and their kidneys live longer. The chances of them having kidney problems in their lifetime afterward are less than 1 percent, it’s actually about 0.3 percent, and it’s a surgery that we do minimally invasively, either microscopically or robotically,” explained the doctor.
Ismeal Saavedra is one of the recipients she speaks of and is thankful for the shot at an extended life that his wife, Norma gave him when she donated her kidney to him. Married for 20 years, he and his wife enjoyed their experience through the program despite being there for life-changing surgery.
“My wife is pretty happy about how they did the whole process. There’s no words really to describe how good everyone - the nurses, doctors, secretaries - I mean everyone in the hospital, including the pharmacists, because I do get my medication there, is to us.”
Saavedra said that the experience has brought him and his wife closer together.
“I can tell you that one day I got on my knees and I told her that anything, anyway, whatever - I’m with her. She’s really an angel. I told her after my Lord Jesus Christ, she’s next. There’s no words to describe how special she is to me. It’s amazing what she’s done,” he said.
Another option is paired kidney donations. Roughly a third of all living donors are not compatible with those they would like to donate their organs to due to incompatible blood types or differences in their immune systems. A kidney swap can overcome this. Recipients swap kidney donors so that each recipient can receive a kidney from a donor with whom they are compatible. All medically eligible donor/recipient pairs may participate in paired kidney exchanges. In some cases, additional donor/recipient pairs may be used to increase the chances that multiple matches will be achieved.
Dr. Jay remembers a couple from Texas that came up to donate to a family friend. Both were worked up as a donor for the same person, and both were approved, but obviously, the patient didn’t need but one of their kidneys.
“They ultimately decided that they both still wanted to continue to donate and decided to do it at the same time. We had never had a couple decide to do it at the same time. As a physician, my first thought was, ‘well, I don’t know if that’s a good idea because if you’re both recovering who’s going to take care of who’ and ‘what if one of you has a complication?’ ‘How are you going to handle that?’”, she reflected. “In the end, I thought I should probably respect their wishes, and their mindset was that they wanted to go through this experience together, including the recovery process. And so they did. They donated one day apart. The wife donated to their family friend, and the husband donated the second day through one of our kidney swap programs, and so his kidney went to help someone in New England.”
To become a living donor, you must volunteer to donate to someone, be 18 or over, and be in good health. You cannot have diabetes or chronic medical conditions, be obese, have active substance abuse or infection, and have recurrent kidney stones. It is recommended that you have a strong support system to help you recover after your surgery. Dr. Jay recommends contacting the transplant recipients center or your closest center for more information.
“In general, what it means to be a good donor is to be reasonably healthy. With kidney donation, we just don’t worry about health for the surgery but worry about long-term health and kidney health,” she said. “The best way to be healthy enough to be a kidney donor is cutting those lifestyle issues and making sure you’re managing your weight and avoiding obesity so you can avoid diabetes and high blood pressure. You do this by eating healthy, staying physically active, and maintaining healthy body weight.”
Like Dr. Jay, Saavedra agrees that it takes a special person to be willing to donate, calling them superhuman.
“Sometimes people donate, and they don’t even know the person. It’s something out of this world that they are willing to do in giving something from their own body. It’s amazing. There’s not anything that someone can do to really thank them.”
According to the cost associated with donating, your evaluation as a potential donor and donor follow-up appointments is paid by the transplant recipient’s medical insurance, according to the WFBH Living Donor program’s website. This includes physical examinations, laboratory blood tests, X-rays, scans, imagining, surgery, and any necessary post-donation discharge medications. Financial concerns regarding donation can be discussed with someone from the Abdominal Organ Transplant Program living donation team or the National Living Donor Assistance Center.
To make the sacrifices that are made, both physically and financially, Saavedra credits a higher power.
“This is the love that the Lord talks about. These people are really kind and have a true heart. Love thy neighbor - that’s the kind of love these people are really showing. Even though some of them don’t know about the Lord, but that’s how big it is, and I think that’s how the Lord wants us to feel about other people,” he explained. “To those people who are thinking about donating, just know you’re saving a life. We really don’t think about it like that, but if you saw someone dying, falling off a cliff, or something, you would save them. This is similar to that. You’re not only saving one person’s life. You’re actually saving the next person’s life too because once a recipient like me gets put off of the list, someone else gets a chance at life.”
For more information, visit https://www.wakehealth.edu/Specialty/a/Abdominal-Organ-Transplant-Program.