Last year, I read an article about illegal kidney trafficking and, the very next day came across the blog of a young man living on dialysis. I decided to donate a kidney to a stranger. It wasn’t a difficult choice: I’ve taken more time deliberating whether to grow out my bangs.
Over 93,000 people are on the kidney donation waiting list in the U.S., and people die waiting every day. I’d always liked the idea of saving someone’s life in a heroic fashion, and neither my job as a greeting card writer nor my propensity to waste time on the Internet seemed likely to produce the opportunity. With excellent health, an always-supportive husband, no children to care for, and a job with medical leave, I saw myself as a logical candidate.
After I applied to the National Kidney Registry, a nice man called me and made sure I was mentally competent and not looking to make a profit. He told me about “donor chains.” Someone who wants to donate a kidney to her loved one, but isn’t a match, pledges to donate to someone else if her loved one gets a transplant. The network puts together chains of people “paying it forward,” but it takes an altruistic donation to set it in motion.
No hospitals in my hometown were affiliated with the national program, so I would be working with a hospital four hours away. They were billed for all of the tests I needed to determine if I were a healthy enough candidate.
The first test required collecting 24-hours’-worth of my pee in the fridge. It disgusted me so much I considered throwing out all the food. I had to repeat that test twice, once due to an office error.
But the tests that required three days without caffeine were the worst. I would get skull-cracking headaches, and would stumble in for the blood draw in a bitchy haze.
“You’re donating to someone you don’t even know? That’s so nice!” the nurse said. I managed to reply with something other than, “Let’s just get this f**king over with,” but still sounded like the world’s grouchiest altruist.
It took months to get the various medical tests done because I sometimes had a hard time scheduling them around the commitments of my job. (Protip: “Stress test” means “run shirtless on a treadmill.” Don’t show up in heavy boots.)
They began testing me for matches with recipients. My coordinator would send me packages full of test tubes, I would have a nurse fill them with my blood, and then I would FedEx them to various places in the country. It was like a morbid and boring hobby.
A couple of possible matches and even a tentative surgery date fell through, disheartening me each time. After enough blood shipments, it became easy to imagine the National Kidney Registry was actually a front for sophisticated vampires.
They matched me with a man in San Diego. I knew little about him, other than he had a spouse and kids, and had been on the waiting list for more than a year. The surgery date was set, and I arranged for medical leave. The day before, my husband and I packed and hit the road.
My husband, who had helped me all along despite his misgivings, now felt panicked about the operation. He believed it was my body and therefore my choice, but he was white-knuckling the wheel. I tried to cheer him up by playing awesome songs from the road trip playlist I had compiled. It didn’t help.
In a gas station restroom stall, I got a call from my coordinator. The recipient’s test results that day had turned up something iffy. The surgery might or might not happen in the morning.
We finished the drive and checked into a strange-smelling hotel. I stared at the ochre walls. I can only imagine what this day was like for the transplant recipient and his family.
Finally I got the call from my coordinator. The transplant was a go.
My husband was relieved to see me wake up from surgery, talking and smiling. My vitals were all good, and the woman who took them said, “Welp, nobody can ever say you never did anything nice for anyone.” The next day, I learned my recipient’s surgery had gone fine. The transplanted kidney had begun to work immediately. I was overjoyed. We had done it!
I went home a few days after the operation. For about a week, I felt like shit, and I got a lot better. While donating does pose some extra long-term risks for donors, the truth is, they tend to live about as long as non-donors. I’m taking a few extra steps to improve my health, such as exercising more and, yes, cutting back on coffee.
Seven transplants in the chain happened because of my initial donation. I feel really proud of what I’ve done, and grateful that I was in a position to do it. Donating a kidney turned out to be not so much the brash act of physical bravery I had imagined, but rather an exercise in perseverance. In other words, it was just like accomplishing anything else.