Tom Clyde: Registering as an organ donor is a small task to make a big difference
July 8, 2018
I'm looking at a photo my sister sent me. It's of her daughter – my niece – and a man none of us know. They are both in hospital gowns, smiling, and looking inexplicably relaxed given what is about to happen. Anybody looking at the picture would think they are a good-looking young couple. You'd never assume they were strangers. What's really happening is that they are both about to go into surgery where he will donate a kidney to my niece.
Nice to meet you.
There are really no protocols for that relationship. Facebook has no button to click to describe your relationship as "Live Organ Donation." The donor is a stranger. He's a friend of a friend's cousin's neighbor or something like that. He heard about my niece's kidney failure somehow, and decided he would give her a kidney. Why not? The only bond is that they are both parents of children with Down syndrome. The man considered the challenges their children face, and how much harder their lives would be if they were without a parent. So, after months of testing, he and his wife flew up from California and gave her a kidney.
The two couples went to dinner the night before the surgeries. It's hard to imagine that conversation. The whole thing is so surreal. They probably talked about their handicapped kids and the challenges their whole families face there. Maybe a little World Cup action, while steering clear of politics, and, oh, by the way, thank you for putting your life at risk to save mine. It's really nice to meet you. We'll pick up the check for dinner. Amazing.
The donor is a stranger. ... He heard about my niece’s kidney failure somehow, and decided he would give her a kidney. Why not?”
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You just don't pick up a kidney at Home Depot. Within a large and supportive family, she had been unable to find a suitable match. Most of us were categorically disqualified because of age, blood pressure, and other issues. The screening system knocked me out almost before I got my name entered. Apparently high blood pressure puts me at risk of someday needing to find a replacement kidney, and they aren't about to let me give one up. Her sister was generally compatible, but kidneys aren't as standardized as you'd think, and the plumbing didn't match up.
There are complicated trades, where a donor who is incompatible with his or her family member donates to a stranger who matches, and somebody in that stranger's circle of potential donors turns out to be compatible with your family member. The hospitals almost run a brokerage on them.
I'll confess to being somewhat relieved that I wasn't an acceptable match. I was so summarily rejected that I never really had to come face to face with the decision. I think I would have made the donation for my niece, but it's easy to say that when you're punted out of the system on the first question. Would I donate a kidney to a total stranger? Well, um, boy, it's been a long time since we had any rain around here.
When nobody in the extended family is a suitable match, you begin casting the net a little wider. She didn't exactly start calling best friends from second grade and asking for a kidney, but did put the word out there. She had an overwhelming response among friends, but nothing matched. It's not an easy request. "Would you take care of my dog next weekend?" is one thing, but to add, "and by the way, I need a kidney," is quite another. And a year passed, and then a couple more, and nothing happened until a random, stranger came along and made an incredible sacrifice.
The surgery seems both miraculous and routine. Pull one from the parts bin, take the old one out; sew the new one in. Within just minutes, the donated organ was functioning properly. She was on the mend almost immediately. The donor may have the more difficult recovery. In addition to a major surgery, his remaining kidney needs to pick up the full load. Nobody is leaving the hospital for a while. The medical team involved made it all seem routine. They knock out several of these a week.
My father knew Willem Kolff, who was the inventor of dialysis. I remember him being at our house when I was young, talking about the mechanical, artificial kidney, and saying miraculous as it was, the future was organ transplant, not his machines. Maybe in the not too distant future, we will be making new organs on 3D printers from our own cells.
For the time being, the option is organ transplant. It's easy to become an organ donor, and if you do it after you are dead, it's also not frightening or an act of great courage. You won't be needing your organs when you're gone. Go to YesUtah.org and register online. It's that easy.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.