By David Drake, DO, DFAPA
It was a little more than a month ago when I sat down and wrote a letter to my family and friends. I told them I would be undergoing surgery the following week. I asked them to keep me and my wife Claire and the surgeons in their thoughts and prayers.
I wasn't sick, and I didn't have any significant health issues. This was purely elective surgery — and, in some respects, even unnecessary. But I had decided to serve as a humanitarian kidney donor — giving my left kidney to someone I had never met!
How did this come about? Several years ago, I began reading about folks donating kidneys — it was in Reader's Digest or who knows where. These were living donors giving a kidney, probably to family members. Then in January 2013, The Des Moines Register featured an article on multiple people — donors and recipients — who were part of paired organ transplant exchanges. Ten people were shown as part of the giving and receiving process.
The need for kidneys in Iowa is significant. There are somewhere around 600 folks on a waiting list for a kidney. In many cases the donation of a kidney is life saving — or at least life changing — because it allows a person to get off dialysis if the donated kidney functions for them.
As I approached turning 62 in March, I began to realize that with good luck, good genes and taking care of myself, at best a third of my life remained. I took this to heart and began to wonder about what kind of contributions I wanted to make in my remaining years.
Somehow the idea of becoming a live humanitarian kidney donor began to strike my interest. I called my doctor to let him know of my initial curiosity. I was referred to the transplant team at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, and that began a process lasting some four months of extensive tests.
The thought process in donating to a stranger can be complex. Somehow the idea of humanitarian kidney donation hooked me. We can be hooked by something, in addition to the contributions we already make. An awareness of the coming end of our lives can perhaps bring these opportunities into clearer focus and awareness.
If you don't have doubts at the beginning of the screening/evaluation process you probably will along the way. And my surgeon warned me about the mass effect that accumulates as the prospective donor moves forward.
The several months of screenings — medical, social, psychological — began to take a toll and made me question whether I was really up to this. Is this something I really felt moved to pursue? In my case, because my father had suffered a severe stroke at 76, I was referred for an extensive heart evaluation — including treadmill stress test, EKG, cardiologist consultation and a heart echocardiogram.
Since the surgery on July 8, I have met the recipient of my kidney and his wife. They are from an adjacent state. He was diagnosed with severe kidney disease and had been on dialysis for the past two years. But the dialysis ended as a result of receiving my left kidney.
Our hospital rooms were two rooms apart. When I went out into the hallway for a brief walk the morning after the surgery, his wife recognized me and stood there with tears in her eyes, shaking her head. "I can't believe you did this," she said. She gave me a very warm hug. Her husband and I spoke several times during my brief stay. He plans to go back to driving a truck. She plans to focus more on her own career.
In less than two weeks post-surgery, I have been able to return to work full-time. But my work entails mostly listening and talking from a comfortable chair. It would be very different for someone in more physical work.
The donation of a kidney can save a life — and certainly enhance a life. Donating a kidney changes the life of the donor, as well as the recipient, forever. I can believe that.