Last summer I passed a billboard on Hastings Way each day on my way to work: Mary seeking a kidney. I called the local number and left a message explaining my experiences with donation and requesting an interview. I knew Sawdust Stories could help get the word out, but Mary didn’t respond. That billboard now advertises diamond rings. I hope Mary found her donor.
In 2005 I donated a kidney to a stranger; in 2014 I donated bone marrow to my brother. When Joe discovered I was the only match of us 7 siblings who were tested, he told his cancer doctor, “Patti is saving the world one organ at a time.” Not quite. No one is getting my liver, though when I die all parts of me are up for grabs.
Fifteen years ago when I read about the ease of living kidney donation (minimally invasive procedure, short recovery) and the tremendous need, something inside of me shifted from “Why should I?” to “How can I not?” Over 101,000 people are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant in the U.S. Every two hours, one dies.
The “Share-Your-Spare” movement, launched by the non-profit Donor to Donor, is devoted to living kidney donor awareness. Their public service announcement uses the analogy of wearing two life jackets. “You realize a person is drowning in the water next to you,” the video voiceover says. “Would you give your extra life jacket to save them? How about your kidney?”
I donated in Minneapolis with Fairview-University Medical Center’s Good Samaritan or “non-directed” program (now University of Minnesota Health, Fairview). My recipient was a man in his 50s from Wisconsin, Minnesota or the Dakotas. We’ve never communicated aside from the letter I sent him a month after our surgeries. He didn’t reply.
For years I often thought of my recipient. Much like driving past a house where I used to live, I’d speculate if the new owner was caring for it. Did getting my kidney mean this guy now craves Miller Lite beer or eats vegetarian like me? Science supports that traces of a body part’s “cellular memory” can be accessed even in another person’s receptor network. Georgetown University’s Dr. Candace Pert confirms, “The mind and body communicate with each other through chemicals found in the brain as well as in all of our major organs.”
Weeks ago I pulled into the Lake Hallie Aldi parking lot next to a rusting Subaru with a magnetic sign affixed to the back panel: “Tom Buelow needs a kidney/R U Our Hero?” Someone else with a dire need. A quick search led me to Tom’s website, kidney4Tom.com, and I reached out. He lives in Pewaukee with his wife, Karen, who happens to be UW-Eau Claire’s first bachelor of fine arts graduate in metalsmithing. Tom retired after a career at IBM and Thomson Financial. In 2011, the otherwise healthy baby boomer was shocked by his chronic kidney disease diagnosis. He had no other symptoms, such as high blood pressure. His kidneys failed in 2018; his best hope now is a living donor.
Karen launched a campaign to find a match, including billboards throughout southern Wisconsin. She shipped their car magnets and bumper stickers to 20 states. She humbly says of her marketing work: “I don’t want people to think they need any special skills to be a champion for a loved one.” Interviews on Milwaukee TV stations and newspapers led to further exposure.
So far, almost 40 potential donors responded. Though Tom requires someone with type O blood, anyone can be tested and become part of the National Paired Exchange. These arranged “swaps” match multiple pairs of donors and recipients with different blood types and prompt a daisy chain of anywhere from 2 to 30 transplants.
Living donors have made possible more than 150,000 kidney transplants in the United States since 1954 when the first successful one occurred between 23-year-old identical twins. Early donor pairs were blood relatives in order to reduce the risk of organ rejection. Eight years after the Herrick brothers survived transplantation and thrived, immune suppression drugs meant unrelated patients could donate.
Surprisingly, Good Samaritan donation was not even considered until the late 1990’s, in part because many believed it violated the medical ethic “first, do no harm.” Donors who are family and friends have an obvious stake in their recipients’ lives. A stranger with no connections means doctors might take a perfectly healthy person and perform surgery without the donor earning anything in return.
Studies show that Good Samaritan donors DO gain something in return: a tremendous sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Post-donation we enjoy the same quality of life as anyone with two kidneys. Statistically, donors outlive the average person: we must be healthy to donate, and we continue those positive habits for life.
Living donors are much sought after, since their organs tend to be more viable. Transplanted “living” kidneys begin functioning immediately after surgery and last twice as long as those from a cadaver. In addition, the wait for a deceased-donor could be months to many years, depending on geographic region. Wisconsinites’ average wait for a cadaver kidney is about three years, while Californians could be delayed for over a decade. Many in need die in limbo.
In 1994 a family vacation to Italy turned tragic for Reg Green when his 7-year-old son was shot to death by robbers. Nicholas’s organs transformed the lives of seven, while his heartbreaking story rippled out to millions. Ten years later, the rate of organ donation had tripled in Italy. No other country has ever come close to that growth rate. This phenomenon, dubbed “The Nicholas Effect,” prompted Green’s best-selling book of the same name and later a TV movie of the week.
Still an advocate and still a grieving father, Green, now 90, recently published an op-ed piece in newspapers around the U.S. (including in the Chippewa Valley) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his son’s death. He portrays organ donation as one way to “leap the barriers between us,” especially in times of social and political turmoil. Green writes, “The hearts of black women beat inside white women — and vice versa. Muslims are breathing through Jewish lungs . . . some Republicans now see the world through Democratic corneas — and vice versa.”
The universal lesson of organ donation, according to Green, means life triumphs over death. For Tom Buelow, that will occur on Jan. 2 when he receives a kidney from a stranger who stepped forward to share his spare.