Sticking together, even when you’re not

When the e-mail arrived from my ex-wife in early 2018, I never dreamed that it would result in my being in the hospital almost two years later. In fact, there were many circumstances over the next 22 months that I could never have imagined from reading that email.

My ex-wife is Michelle and her husband is Mark. Mark is diabetic. He had a number of serious medical challenges. He was going to St. Paul’s Hospital three times a week for dialysis to deal with kidney failure. Michelle, on behalf of Mark, sent an email to approximately 150 people explaining the situation and asking if people would consider donating a kidney to Mark. Receiving a new kidney would increase the years that Mark would have to live and improve his quality of life, including not having to go to the hospital for dialysis.

After reading the literature from the Living Kidney Donor Program (LKDP) and discussing it with my wife, Jennifer, I decided to start the process. I was semi-retired, had the time and, I hoped, the health. I figured why not try to help out? The package said it could take three months to go through the process. Not even close for me!

Once the donor program had reviewed my answers to a 17-page questionnaire and cleared me to proceed, I moved on to the numerous medical tests. These included blood tests, blood pressure readings, urine tests, imaging, ECG, kidney ultrasound, chest x-rays, tuberculosis test, radiological test of the kidney’s blood supply, CAT scan of the kidney and psychological testing. I could not tell you how many blood tests I had over the next 22 months. In addition, many of the above tests had to be done multiple times due to the time delays involved. But it was always enjoyable to deal with the medical professionals at Whitehorse General and the tests were new life experiences.

Of the other approximately 150 people contacted by Michelle, seven indicated that they would begin the process to see if they could give Mark a kidney. Of those seven, a couple did not follow through. Several others were eliminated due to existing health issues. An amazing part of this very thorough process was that three of the individuals going through the battery of tests found out that their glomerular filtration rate (kidney function) was too low and that they, too, could have kidney failure in the future. Signing up for the kidney donation provided them with valuable information about their own health. Michelle was eliminated from donating her kidney at that time because of her high blood pressure and her weight.

After more than six months of tests, it looked like I was the likely candidate to give my kidney to Mark. It is important to note that the donor program does not share any information between potential donors, or between potential donors and the kidney recipient. In this case, I was able to know what was going on in the broader situation, only because I was in direct contact with Michelle and Mark. However, the story would take a couple of turns from here.

I suffer from arthritis in my neck, for which I took two Advil (or more) every day. A person cannot take non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID’s) such as Advil more than once, or twice a week with only one kidney. After discussing this with the nephrologist at the donor clinic, I was referred to a rheumatologist and a hematologist in Vancouver. It took six months to see these specialists. The results of these visits did not change anything. I could still donate a kidney, but I would have to significantly cut back on my use of Advil.  One good thing about the trip was that Mark and I had dinner and, coincidentally, he picked a restaurant that had steak and kidney pie. Of course, I ordered it. I figured that if I did not end up giving him my kidney, at least I could give some of my steak and kidney pie.

In the meantime, Michelle had lost 40 pounds and gotten her blood pressure under control. She went through a number of the tests again and was then pronounced fit to donate a kidney. It was determined that Mark and Michelle were compatible for a kidney transplant and the operation was set up for a month later.

When a person is involved in a kidney transplant, they need help for the first couple of weeks. Donors or recipients are not allowed to lift anything more than 10 pounds and they are not to drive while on the prescription pain medications. In this case, both people involved in the transplant lived in the same house. They needed help! So, who took care of them post-operation? I did, along with Colleen, Mark’s girlfriend from 30 years ago, who now lives in the Seattle area. The gathering for Easter dinner was certainly interesting. It was attended by my and Michelle’s daughter, Michelle, Mark, Mark’s two sons, his ex-wife, his ex-mother-in-law, and Colleen and I. I am happy to report that the transplant went well and Mark’s kidney function is fine.

Then came a follow up phone call from the nephrologist, who expressed concern about my proceeding as a donor, seeing as Mark had received a kidney and my arthritis issues.

“Give me the summer and let me see how I can do without the Advil,” I said.

Over the summer I was able to keep moving through mountain biking, hiking, lawn mowing and various other outside activities and was able to significantly reduce my intake of Advil. When the follow-up call from the nephrologist came in September, I said I wanted to proceed with donating a kidney anonymously.

The operation took place on Nov. 13 and my kidney was successfully pumping away inside someone else within four hours. Jennifer and I even stayed with Mark and Michelle during my initial recovery before returning to Whitehorse. The entire recovery takes six to 10 weeks. Time has helped me gain perspective on the relatively short period of pain and inconvenience for me relative to the improvement in someone else’s life. Would I do it again if I could? In a heartbeat.

Would I do anything differently? I would eat less hospital food and have Jennifer bring in more take-out.

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