Written by Martha Gershun, Guest Blogger
Laurie Lee is an altruistic kidney donor and facilitator of the Kidney Champion Program at Northwestern Medicine, a program that teaches kidney patients strategies to help find a living donor. She is also the host of Donor Diaries, a podcast about the beauty and messiness of living organ donation. For the past three years she has been working as a producer and content consultant on Abundant, a documentary featuring first-person stories from living kidney donors. Laurie graciously consented to a virtual interview with me, another living donor, to share more about this exciting project. Our conversation below has been condensed and edited.
Martha Gershun: Can you tell us about your own transplant story?
Laurie Lee: In 2011, my dad had a lifesaving liver transplant from a deceased donor at Northwestern Medicine. In the course of a year, we were called in four times for a transplant only to find out it was not a good match. When my dad finally got his transplant, it was such a huge relief. We learned his liver came from a young man who had died in an accident. I felt so grateful to the family who made the hard decision to donate their son’s organs. I knew right away that I wanted to put back into the system that saved my dad’s life.
In the next few years, I immersed myself in the transplant community. I met a lot of kidney donors, and each one said it was one of the best things they had ever done, and that it was relatively easy to do. I let the idea cook for several years, and as soon as my small business was big enough for me to be able to leave it for two weeks, I donated my kidney! My donation started a six-person transplant chain, and it was an extremely positive and rewarding experience. Since I donated, the transplant community has become a major part of my life. While I never wish liver disease on anyone, I am so grateful my life was touched by it. It totally changed the course of my life for the better!
MG: Tell us about Abundant.
LL: Abundant is a documentary film, featuring first-person stories from living kidney donors recorded before a live audience in a major theatrical setting. The casts’ stories focus on the unexpected experiences and effects of giving a kidney to a stranger.
Abundant also offers insights about extreme altruism from experts in economics, spirituality, business, the arts, psychology, and neuroscience. This expert commentary frames and explains the abundant mindset and altruistic psyche, complimenting the extraordinary stories told by our living kidney donors.
MG: Can you briefly tell us about the donor stories in the film?
LL: The cast is a diverse group made up of 12 non-directed donors and 2 directed donors. Two have donated both a kidney and a portion of their liver, and a third kidney donor is scheduled to donate a portion of her liver later this year.
Our stories go well beyond the physical aspects of organ donation to share vulnerable stories about human emotions everyone can relate to: joy, disappointment, grief, hope, love, worthiness, perseverance, and so much more. These stories have a unique power to make the listener know they are not alone with their thoughts, feelings, and reality.
MG: Why do you think Abundant matters?
LL: End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) is the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S. The number of people who need a kidney transplant is increasing every year, while the number of transplants has remained relatively stagnant for the past several years. Until we can rely on pig kidneys or artificial kidneys in some form, living donation is the answer.
What I love most about living donation is that it positively impacts the receiver, but it almost always positively impacts the giver as well. Over 95% of people who have donated a kidney say they would do it again if they could. Donating an organ is a big deal, and the decision should not be taken lightly, but when I look at all there is to gain compared to the sacrifice involved to donate, THAT is what sells me on the concept of organ donation. If we can educate and inspire the general public, people like me will get the opportunity to make an impact, and people suffering on dialysis will get a second chance.
MG: How can people support this effort?
LL: We need to raise $30,000 to stay on our production schedule. Supporters can make a tax- deductible donation here. And companies and transplant organizations can sponsor the production in a wide variety of ways listed here. We are extremely grateful to all of our donors and sponsors, and are hopeful the transplant community can help us reach our fundraising goals so we can complete Abundant!
Martha Gershun is a nonprofit consultant and writer living in Fairway, KS with her husband Don Goldman. Her most recent book, Kidney to Share (Cornell University Press, 2021), with co-author John Lantos, MD, details her experience donating a kidney at the Mayo Clinic to a woman she read about in the newspaper. Gershun serves on the Expert Advisory Panel for the Kidney Transplant Collaborative and serves on the Board of the National Kidney Foundation Serving Kansas, Oklahoma, and Western Missouri.