April is Donate Life Awareness Month. I have personally been touched by the generosity of people who have given the gift of life, so I thought some personal stories would be more effective than a broad, general appeal to become an organ donor. I realize this is a scary time for most and you won’t want to run out and offer to be a donor. However, when coronavirus has run its course, I hope you will consider it. And I know the Red Cross is looking for blood donors now, since it is desperately needed.
From the time I was 16 years old, I’ve been a regular blood donor. It takes nothing from me except a pinprick and a little time; what a small price to pay to potentially save someone’s life. If you or a loved one has ever needed blood, you have also been touched by someone’s generous donation. And of course, donors and recipients are total strangers. You’ll never know if or when you’ll be on the receiving end: It’s great if, beforehand, you donate to pay that forward simply because you can, but returning the favor after you’re able would be a wonderful way to say thank you.
In 1994, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. His doctor thought it would be easy to find a donor among his six siblings, but that didn’t turn out as expected. At that time, the test that determined one’s compatibility for donating bone marrow was quite expensive so not many people could afford it. We had several fundraisers, raising enough to add 350 volunteers to the national bone marrow registry. I know of at least one of them who was called to donate for a total stranger, and he did. Donating bone marrow can be painful; apparently, it feels like falling on ice. You might be sore for a couple of days but then you’ll be back to normal living. Some of the people who knew my husband wanted to donate, but only for him. They didn’t want to do it for a stranger. The odds of matching someone you know are slim. If everyone thought that way, no one’s lives would be saved. The way to think about it is that you may match someone you don’t know and help them, while a stranger may match your loved one and donate to him or her. This requires an attitude of hope and faith in the goodness of people.
My husband did not receive a match and needed to proceed with a mismatched donor. The generosity of his uncle, the closest match he had, will never be forgotten. He gave up some time, flew to Wisconsin and endured the procedure and subsequent mild pain later, all to save the life of his nephew. I only wish more people would be willing to do that for people they don’t know. Saving a life is the best feeling in the world.
I had a girlfriend whose baby was born with liver problems and needed an immediate transplant. At that time, her son was one of the first—if not the first—to have a portion of a donor’s liver transplanted. He lived 25 years with that partial kidney transplant!
My wonderful friend, Sylvester Baugh, desperately needs a kidney transplant. He has kidney disease from a lifetime of high blood pressure. Did you know you can donate a kidney while living if you are a match for a person who needs one? Most people have two kidneys and only need one. This is a much bigger commitment than blood or bone marrow, it’s true, but not doing it can lead to someone’s unnecessary death. I tried to donate one of my kidneys for him but was turned down due to some preexisting conditions of my own; nothing serious for me, but the doctors were concerned that I was at too high risk to donate a kidney. He has five siblings, none of whom could donate because of their own issues with hypertension. He had another volunteer go through the whole process, which is an extensive amount of testing, only to not follow through in the end: Two heartbreaks for Sylvester.
After that, he discovered he had prostate cancer. (Can this guy get a break?) The good news is that, since there was early detection, he got rid of the cancer with a short bout of radiation. However, during that treatment, he was taken off the kidney transplant list. After six months of no recurrence, he went back on the list, only to have his PSA levels elevate, creating concern the cancer is back. He is expected to have surgery this week, in the midst of the pandemic, to remove his prostate and one of his kidneys, so he can once again be reinstated to the transplant list.
This man is an amazing human being, who is steadfast in his Christian faith and goes out of his way to help those in need. Like me, he is an instructor of Choice Theory and speaks around the country, helping people learn things that drastically improve their lives. He is tireless and selfless in his work. And he is the grandfather of three beautiful little girls who are the love of his life.
He just needs one kidney. Most of us have two. Would you be willing to get tested for him or someone else who needs this lifesaving measure? The doctors won’t take you if you are any risk at all, as in my case. And if you might need a kidney yourself in the future, former donors go to the head of the transplant list. The way I thought about it was, if I were walking on the beach with two life preservers and someone was drowning, I wouldn’t keep walking thinking, “I can’t give you one of my life preservers, I might need it later.” Most people would never do that. Why do it with a body part you can live without?
Think about all the ways you can be a donor while alive: You can donate blood, bone marrow, a kidney, a lung, a portion of your liver, pancreas, or intestine.
Finally, if living donation isn’t for you, please consider organ donation after death. Unless you are prevented by religious beliefs, in most states, all it takes is checking a box when you have your driver’s license renewed. Ask your doctor or nurse how to become an organ donor. After you die, the organs that can be donated include your heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, corneas, skin, pancreas, small intestine, veins, heart valves, tendons, ligaments and bones. You won’t need them anymore, and who knows what your recipient will go on to do. This will also be part of your legacy: your willingness to give the gift of life.