Written by Martha Gershun, Guest Blogger
How old is too old to donate a kidney? Well, Frank Dewhurst of Austin, TX was 84 years old when he successfully donated a kidney in 2019 at Houston Methodist Hospital, making him the oldest person in the United States to become a living kidney donor. Frank graciously consented to a virtual interview with me, a living donor myself, to share more about his journey to becoming a living kidney donor. Our conversation below has been condensed and edited.
Martha Gershun (MG): How did you first learn about your recipient, Paulette’s need for a kidney?
Frank Dewhurst (FD): Paulette’s husband Carl and I have been friends and neighbors for years. He had put a sticker in the back of his vehicle requesting a kidney donor. He told me that his nephew was rejected. After a few months he put a large sign in his front yard asking for a donor with Type O blood.
One day when walking by the sign I said: “Why not me?” I posed the question to my wife Barbara when I got home, and she thought it would be okay. I called Paulette and Carl and asked if we could come and visit. We went over and told them I would like to be their donor. They were surprised! I told them I was in excellent health, but my older age might be a factor. They gave me the information and website to apply. I applied to be Paulette’s donor on November 1, 2018, and the rest is history!
MG: Had you ever thought about donating before?
FD: Months before I had read about three retired golfing buddies in Arizona, and one of them had failing kidneys. The other two volunteered to be his donor, and one was accepted. The article showed them months later back on the golf course. That planted the seed.
MG: How did you feel when you learned you were a good match to donate?
FD: It was a very uplifting feeling, because I could see the joy and relief in Paulette and Carl. We became closer and talked frequently. For one of my evaluation tests I rode with them for the day trip from Austin to the transplant clinic in Houston, about 2-1/2 hours each way.
MG: According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (UNOS), there were 6,866 living kidney donors in the U.S. in 2019, the year you donated. Only 5% of them were over age 65. Were you at all concerned that you were too old to donate?
FD: I was not concerned for myself, but I felt that it might be a factor for rejecting me!
MG: Did the doctors or the hospital ask you to jump through extra hoops because of your age?
FD: Sort of, but nothing I didn’t expect. After all my preliminary physical tests came back positive, Dr. Hassan Ibrahim, Chief of Kidney Diseases at Houston Methodist Hospital, became my advocate. He had to recommend me to the Advisory Review Board. I had the normal social worker session for prospective donors with a hundred questions asking and re-asking why I was doing this. Dr. Ibrahim also gave me an article on “Living Kidney Donors Ages 70 and Older, Recipient and Outcomes.”1
The Houston Methodist Transplant Center had a class and video on the donation process for prospective donors and their family members. This was very helpful for my wife Barbara to understand what I was going to experience.
There were only three persons aware I was doing this, Barbara, my recipient Paulette, and her husband Carl. I told them that they could say Paulette had found a donor but not who it was. After the transplant was completed, we let the word out. I felt strongly about keeping it a secret and not letting my family influence me. It was the right decision!
MG: It’s been three years since your kidney donation. How is your health?
FD: Excellent. All is good now.
MG: How do you feel about your decision to donate? What would you say to someone else thinking about becoming a living kidney donor?
FD: It was the right decision, and I would do it again if I had an extra kidney! I would encourage anyone who was in good health to do it. The Transplant Team gave me the confidence that they had my best interests throughout the whole process!
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.