By Martha Gershun, Guest Blogger
Early last month, I sat on a sunny patio at one of my favorite restaurants in Kansas City enjoying brunch with two of my favorite people – Deb Porter Gill and her boyfriend George, who was in town from Florida visiting family. No one watching us – talking animatedly about friends, family, politics, religion, movies, books, vacations – would have guessed at the permanent bond we share. Almost exactly five years before, my left kidney was removed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and placed in Deb’s abdomen – to continue its work in an entirely different body.
I first learned about Deb, then 56, and her search for a living kidney donor in December 2017, when I read her story in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. I remember one crystal clear thought: “I bet I can do that.”
Fifteen years earlier my cousin Ann received a kidney from a dear friend in Omaha, NE, so I knew firsthand what a gift like this could mean for a family.
Medically, donating my kidney was a lot easier than I expected. I was evaluated for physical, mental, and psycho-social fitness. I was told repeatedly that I could back out at any time, and they would tell Deb they had disqualified me.
People have abdominal surgery all the time. They take out a kidney a lot like they take out an appendix, a gall bladder, or a uterus. I was walking four hours after surgery; I left the hospital after two nights; I never needed the oxycontin they gave me. I missed my College and Business School Reunions in Boston, but not a trip soon after to New York City.
Logistically, donating my kidney was harder than I expected. Coordinating schedules takes patience, and I had to find time for testing, surgery, and recovery. My husband had to do the same, taking 16 days off from his work leading a large nonprofit in order to serve as my caregiver. While Deb’s insurance covered all of my medical and surgical expenses (even the $12 bottle of laxative provided by the clinic pharmacy to drink the night before my surgery), it did not pay for travel, out-of-pocket expenses, or lost wages. (We were fortunate; Deb generously covered our expenses, and my husband had enough PTO to cover his missed work.) But clearly, becoming a living organ donor is a good deed for the privileged and the well-resourced.
People tell me they think I’m a hero. But nothing could be further from the truth. I’m so claustrophobic I avoid parking in underground parking lots; I could never tunnel under rubble to save a stranger. In the last decade of my career I led a nonprofit that helped abused and neglected children, and never once did I consider adopting – or even fostering – a child in desperate need of a good home.
Those weren’t good deeds I was prepared to do. But I could do this. I’m not squeamish about needles or hospitals, and I had the time and the skills and the support system, including my husband, to negotiate the process of becoming a living organ donor.
Five years after the transplant, Deb is doing great. She carefully monitors her health and takes her meds, but most of the time she and George travel widely, focus on causes they care about, and enjoy time with family and friends. I am doing great, too. At 66, my kidney numbers remain good, and I am still walking 5-6 miles every day. I don’t think I can blame the increasing aches and pains of aging on giving up a kidney.
Sometimes I think I received more than I gave in this grand adventure. Getting to know Deb and her family, learning about the life-saving world of organ transplantation, co-writing a book about my experience, and lobbying to advocate for changes in the transplant system have all enriched my life in countless ways.
Deb always tells me she is grateful. But I am grateful, too. Presented with the opportunity to save a life – in this way, at this time – I said yes. Happy Anniversary, Deb!
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.