Tag Archives: kidney donation

A Kidney Donor Delivers a Setback to Live Organ Donation

I am a live kidney donor. That’s a fact I don’t parade around on my sleeve except for times like these when the credibility of live organ donation is on the line. We hear lots of beautiful, affirming stories of living donors giving a kidney or part of another organ and the life-changing, life-saving effects of that gift for their recipients. But all it takes is a widely publicized story of a donation going wrong to stamp a black eye on an evolving but fragile medical procedure– fragile because there are far more needs for organ transplants than available donors.

Debbie Stevens- the donor

This week, we heard the story of a 47-year-old woman named Debbie Stevens who donated a kidney to her boss, 61-year-old Jackie Brucia. Debbie Stevens has now gone public alleging that her boss and kidney recipient, hired her, received the kidney, terribly mistreated her, and fired her. Stevens stated, “I decided to become a kidney donor to my boss, and she took my heart… I feel very betrayed. This has been a very hurtful and horrible experience for me. She just took this gift and put it on the ground and kicked it.” Now, after filing a suit against Ms. Brucia, she’s demanding her kidney to be returned.

Jackie Brucia- the recipient

There are a lot of other extenuating details we know and lot more we don’t know. I’m not going to get into the messy she said/she said soap opera. You can read the story for yourself, but from what I gather of Debbie Stevens’ own story read through my own experience as a donor, I seriously doubt the substance of many of her claims. The circumstances leading up to the actual kidney donation looked legitimate. There didn’t appear to be any kind of set-up or manipulation. I also question the validity and helpfulness of  her post-donation claims.

Now, Debbie Stevens did suffer some post-surgical complications, and that happens. (I suffered some, too that lengthened my recovery time, rendering my case “non-textbook”.) But after that, she alleges that Jackie Brucia began to harangue her for taking too much time off and vying for special treatment as Stevens coped with her post-surgical complications.

Eventually, Stevens was re-located to another office as a demotion. After she made a public stink over her treatment and filed a lawsuit, she was fired.
Stevens, a single mother of two, now claims financial ruin from all the post-surgical medical treatments and lost income. She claims psychological trauma as a result of the donation, and that her life is ruined since no insurance company will pick a kidney donor once her COBRA expires. Meanwhile, Stevens and the press have painted Jackie Brucia as a hot-tempered, manipulative, rich company executive who used and abused a gracious, poor single mother of two kids.

Oh brother… Typing out all that drama just now left me feeling like a daytime soap screenwriter!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Jackie Brucia is no innocent saint and that there is some truth to her treatment of Stevens. And of course, we only know what Stevens has shared and how the press has told the story.
But as a donor, I felt compelled to point out some egregious red flags in Stevens’ story and allegations which people unfamiliar to the process might not see.

First, the transplant recipient’s medical insurance covers all of the donor’s medical costs related to the transplant, before and after surgery. All of my screening tests were 100% covered. The surgery and after-care has been 100% covered. When I was re-hospitalized after surgery, the hospitalization, tests, and follow-up tests and visits were all 100% covered. This usually lasts up to two years post-surgery. This is not Good Samaritan philanthropy on the part of insurance companies. As you can imagine, it’s purely about money. It costs a lot less to fully finance a transplant than years of dialysis treatments. Bottom line, unless Stevens is exaggerating her condition or not properly advocating for herself, she should not be in financial ruin from ensuing medical costs related to being a donor.

Second, insurance companies don’t typically deny coverage to organ donors. Not only that, but as established by the Affordable Care Act, a pre-existing condition is no longer a barrier to coverage. That’s one aspect of the new health care law I firmly agree with.

Third, I question the amount of recovery time and accommodations Stevens claimed she needed. Even with complications, I was back to work within three weeks. Stevens was given four. That’s plenty of time. And if she needed more recovery time or accommodations, she could have easily gotten a prescription from her surgeon. That would have cleared the air, especially with her recipient boss, for crying out loud. Chances are that through the process Brucia would have even known and  interacted with Stevens’ surgeon.

Recipients, on the other hand, do often require more recovery time than donors. That is especially the case today with minimally invasive surgical techniques to remove the donor’s kidney. Surgeons have even perfected a single-incision procedure through the donor’s naval! Amazing stuff… So Stevens’ implication that she was forced back to work while her still recovering, pampered boss reamed her out from the comforts of her home looks to be little more than an emotional ploy.

Lastly, something obviously went wrong while preparing and evaluating these two women for the relational after-affects of the donation.
Back to my story… I’m a pastor, and I donated a kidney to one of my parishioners. Live organ donation is emotional enough, but in a potentially awkward situation like this one, it could have been even more so.

Part of the evaluation process was weighing the effects of being a donor on my parishioner recipient, on our unique relationship, how this might affect the church, and how this would affect our families, especially within the church. As a part of my evaluation to be a donor, a social worker from our kidney donation program asked me some very pointed questions, “What are your motives? Do you expect to gain anything from being a donor? How would you react if there was a falling out between you and your recipient? How would you react if the surgery is not successful?” These were tough questions to wrestle through, and if my answers were any less than genuine, my donor application would have been flatly denied. I also had to work very carefully with our church’s leadership and my denominational supervisor to get their support, to discern the best way to share what was happening with the rest of our church, and to work up a recovery plan.

It’s clear from the Debbie Stevens and Jackie Brucia story that something went wrong with this evaluation and preparation process. Perhaps everyone involved was not as thorough or truthful as they needed to be. Maybe the donation program they worked through fell down on the job.

In any case, donation does significantly change the relationship between donor and recipient. It certainly brought my recipient and me and our families much closer. But we also had to figure out healthy, meaningful ways for us to express “thank you” and “you’re welcome” for an unusual, life-altering gift. That creates some discomfort and stress, and I think that stress contributed to the messiness between Stevens and Brucia. I can imagine Stevens feeling that she was owed gratitude and respect from her boss and Brucia struggling over how to be both a thankful recipient and an unbiased supervisor. No doubt those uneasy dynamics came to play.

Yet no matter the extenuating facts, Debbie Stevens’ public behavior since losing her job has cast live organ donation in a dark shadow. She may very well have a case, but why go so public with it, crying out things that are clearly out of line and false? The public sees this story and could very well walk away thinking, If that’s what can happen after donating a kidney, no thank you! Meanwhile, the list of people waiting on the kidney transplant list still grows.

Being a kidney donor is a huge decision, granted, but it is a truly viable, inexpressibly rewarding thing that any healthy person can do. How often are we given an opportunity to give something of ourselves that saves another person’s life? Yes, I live with one kidney now, but I’m just as healthy now as ever. Actually, the process forced me to lose weight and take better care of myself, so I’m healthier now before. My life expectancy has not diminished. I live everyday unaware that anything is different with my body. Aside from avoiding certain medications and avoiding high impact activities, my lifestyle is no different. My kidney donation took place January of last year. That November I ran a 5K race and beat all my previous times.

My body lives just fine with one kidney. And my recipient’s quality of life and life-expectancy has dramatically improved. Her transformation has been a humbling, stunning thing to see.

I really do pray and hope that everything works out as it should for both Stevens and Brucia. Something went terribly wrong that needs to be corrected. But in no way does a tragedy like this paint an accurate or fair portrait of live organ donation.

From one donor to another, Debbie Stevens owes it to everyone on a transplant list and to all potential donors to publicly uphold the worthiness and viability of live organ donation.

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Becoming a Kidney Donor- One Year Later

Today marks one year from January 26, 2011, the day I donated a kidney to my recipient Ann. I’ve thought for a while of what I would say (if anything!) on this day, and the one sentiment that keeps coming to me is thank God for the gift of life. That is not at all an underhanded self-congratulatory statement– not at all! Stranded together in that word “life” are many integral threads, my left kidney being only one of them. The life I’m celebrating today has every bit to do with the journey we have taken leading up to and proceeding the donation surgery itself.

Dave and Ann Meixner, Chris and Blairlee Owens

In the late Spring of 2010 as I considered being a possible donor for Ann, I didn’t have much of a clue about what would truly lie ahead. We never do. We sign up for things in good faith, and then plod on ahead a day at a time in faith, taking whatever comes to us, come what may, good or bad.

For me, one of the first revelations in the extensive evaluation process was that I desperately needed to lose some weight. I’ve always been one of those lucky people with a slower metabolism that leaves me struggling with my weight. But in order to be a donor, I needed to drop some significant pounds. There was a minimal amount and an ideal maximum. Figuring that the lighter I was, the easier all of this would be on the surgeon and on me, I went for the ideal maximum and dropped about 65 lbs.

But the weight was only part of the picture. Ann’s husband Dave kept telling me, “Well, if for nothing else you’ll be getting yourself one heck of a physical.” He was right. Multiple blood tests, a chest x-ray, a CT scan, an EKG, and a full comprehensive physical later, I had gotten more in touch with the make-up and health of my body than I ever had before.

So, the first strand of God’s gift of life was an even greater appreciation for my health and the imperative to get healthier. This is a gift that keeps on giving, too. Now living with only one kidney, I have every bit of motivation needed to keep my weight and all those other critical levels in check!

Then came the day of surgery itself and the days that followed. Looking back, those were some exciting, beautiful times. Yes, there was a lot pain involved, especially in the first couple of days. And there were those minor details of general anesthesia and major surgery for Ann and me. Thank goodness for pain medication that both alleviated much the pain and a bunch of my memories, too.

But two distinct memories stand out from surgery day and the day following: Waking up I first remember asking about Ann. How was she? Did she do alright? The first thing I remember being told was that she was okay and that her new kidney (my old one!) was already at work producing urine. Wow…

Then on the next day after my catheter was removed, they got me up to do some walking and my first walk was down to Ann’s room. Having had my gut cut open and contents removed just the day before, that was a slow, ginger walk. But there was Ann in her room, reporting that already she was beginning to feel better. Her new kidney was hard at work removing the toxins from her body that had debilitated her for years now, and even after her own major surgery, she could feel the difference. Believe me,  that was a powerfully humbling, even flattening thing to behold.

The second strand of life was Ann’s new life. To date, this is the most difficult part of the experience to fathom and even talk about. Most all off us have an inner compulsion to help other people. Most of us would describe ourselves somewhere in the tension of being people who give of themselves while also consciously aware that we could always do better. I donated a kidney to Ann, a member of my church, because it was an opportunity I had to help. Until then, I had never even considered something like this. I didn’t do it to “make a huge sacrifice” or to be a hero.

Ann needed a kidney and like many recipients, she was having a hard time finding one. I was healthy and compatible enough with Ann to participate. That’s it. Some gifts we give make a small, meaningful difference. Others make a drastic, meaningful difference. Sometimes we’re tasked to walk an old woman across the street. Sometimes, we’re tasked to save a life. Either way, it’s all about being available to meet the need, however great or small. Along those lines, I hate to think that I donated a kidney, but failed to take ten minutes to listen to someone who just really needed to talk. Both are equally important tasks. Both give life.

Then, the day after coming home from this hospital, I had to go straight back in. As my bowels woke up from the sleep of general anesthesia, I developed a serious case of GI bleeding. From all the blood loss, I passed out in the hospital, fell and hit my head pretty hard, leaving me with a concussion. Two units of blood, a CAT scan, an endoscopy and colonoscopy, and “Meckel” scan later, I came home again. I don’t remember how many nights I was in the hospital. This time, I was recovering from major blood loss and a concussion in addition to surgery.

Ann had her share of complications, too. Her surgery site got infected and took a long time to properly heal. At one point she experienced some very mild rejection, both instances having put her back into the hospital, too.
What can I say?? We were challenging patients!

For me, the extended recovery and ensuing symptoms left me weaker and more physically and psychologically vulnerable than I realized. Getting back into the swing of things took much, much longer than I had anticipated. And for all their excellent care, the doctors’ predictions about healing times and returning to work were far too rosy. But I wasn’t a textbook case, as my donation coordinator reminded me.

I was suffering memory loss and emotional imbalances from the concussion. Frustration with myself led to a lot of outward and inner anger. I still feel both incredibly grateful but a tinge guilty for all Blairlee, my kids, and those close to me had to endure. This person they had always known just wasn’t himself and couldn’t come to grips with that. Their patience, forgiveness, and unconditional love was yet another gracious gift in this experience.

Finally, by late Spring of last year, all this frustration and anger amassed into a serious depression. Combine that with all the physiological changes my body endured during the year along with my own inherited propensity for depression, and I found myself in a new season of illness and healing I never would have predicted. Just when I thought that physically I was getting in better shape, my mind and spirit needed healing.

Once again I found myself at the mercy and in the care of my family, close friends, and the medical community. And once again, I found myself humbled by everyone’s graciousness and unconditional love. And what did I do to deserve all this??

The third stand of life was the care, support, and gracious love of those closest to me. All told, I have not been an easy person to live with and work with this year. (Some might argue that’s always the case. It was just particularly difficult in 2011.) As a husband, a father, a pastor, and a friend, I have been used to taking care of other people. I was the support and the caregiver. I’m used to living out my life to serve and give to others.

But this time, I couldn’t do much of that. In fact, others have had to do for me what I couldn’t do myself. I know that there have been folks who have felt let down or even angry that I fell down on the job. They told me so. Yet in the midst of all that, I learned how dispensable we all are. Our lives are a gift to others, yes, but we are not indispensable fountains of salvation. The world can carry on without us or even in spite of us.
As it does, I learned to allow others to care for me, to forgive me, and to love me even when I wasn’t very lovable. No one does that better than my wife Blairlee. Here I was, giving away one of my organs, only to find myself a needy recipient.

That has truly been the most profoundly beautiful, humbling thread of this cord of life I’ve been talking about here.

So, here’s to a journey that began close to to two years ago and continues on today. We are all donors and recipients of life. It’s just a question of graciously making ourselves available to give what we have to those who need it and to gladly, graciously receive the gifts others grant us. All this is God’s gift of life, seen most perfectly in Jesus, incarnated in us whenever we lovingly give and whenever we humbly receive.

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The Donor Who Became a Recipient

If life has a constant most of us could agree to, it’s the Forrest Gump Principle: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” How true. In my case, what began for me as an opportunity to be a live kidney donor quickly revolved into the humbling experience of becoming a recipient, not of an organ per se, but of other life-giving blessings, both spiritual and physical.

My realization of this revolution began with a conversation I had with Dave, my recipient’s husband, while I was still in the hospital recovering from kidney donation surgery. He and I were talking about the nature of serving versus being served. In my pain medication-induced mental state, I can’t recall how we got into that subject or how it resolved. But I do remember reflecting with Dave on my experiences with the story of Jesus from John 13 which tells how the Lord himself washed his disciples’ feet.
On several occasions, I’ve participated in foot-washing experiences on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week or during small group settings. It’s never a problem for me to wash someone else’s feet. Hey, if it means helping or blessing someone else, sure, I can do that. Sign me up anytime! Yet when it comes time to switch positions and place my feet into the hands of someone who will wash them… well… to be honest that’s a wholly different, and frankly, painfully uncomfortable thing to do. My gut reaction is to smile and discreetly wave it off, saying, “Please don’t bother yourself with that. I can manage for myself, thank you very much.”

But I have had to learn that sitting there while someone washes and dries my feet is a necessarily humiliating experience for me, much like it was for Jesus’ disciple Peter. It’s Jesus’ way of teaching this proudly self-sufficient alpha male that I must make room in my life for others to serve and give to me. It’s Jesus pushing me to realize that I am far more needy than I realize, and that for my soul’s sake, I must yield to the servant Christ within my sister or brother who would lovingly kneel to wash my feet.

Little would I know, the opportunity to relearn this figurative experience in real life began to happen the day after I came home from kidney donation surgery. On the afternoon of that next day, I started to get some serious GI rectal bleeding that cost me an immediate return trip to the hospital. (Side note: I won’t bore or gross you out with lots of medical details except to say that the bleeding stopped. After three major tests produced no conclusive results, I ended up back home with instructions to follow-up with my primary care doctor.) Yet those miserable five days back in the hospital shaped into a defining wilderness experience I never want to repeat, but whose lessons I hope to keep closely.

I had lost so much blood that I required two units of blood. Never having needed a blood transfusion before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that my condition was worse and even more life-threatening than I knew. As I laid there in the hospital bed gazing up at each bag of blood that was slowly draining into my body, it occurred to me that this was no manufactured IV fluid or medicine. This was created and then voluntarily taken out of someone else’s body, and now it was flowing into mine. Someone freely donated this blood and at that moment, it was saving my life.

For the next couple of hours I looked up at one unit of blood and then the other, trying to imagine the faces of those anonymous donors. Several nights later I had a strange dream about that very thing. In my dream the first unit was given by a stay-home mother of four who donates regularly to her local Red Cross donation center. Then I dreamed that the second unit was donated by an African-American man who happened to walk into a blood drive hosted by a local church. It doesn’t much matter to me how true the dream was. The dream painted a greater reality of both the diversity and the generosity of people who donate blood. Two people, each giving a pint of blood, saved my life.

If that wasn’t leveling enough, I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I experienced next. While I was in the hospital and every day since, my family and I have been bathed in a steady stream of prayers, cards, and meals. Folks have given expressions of concern and love over the phone, by e-mail, on Facebook, in good-old-fashioned hand-written notes. Occasionally, we’ve gotten warm, short visits from friends and family. We have been carried along by the hands, voices, and hearts of hundreds and hundreds of people. I’m not sure how to put into words how deeply moving all of this has been. (Even that last bit of dribble seems so hopelessly cliché!)

I even had agnostic and atheist friends tell me that they would pray for my recipient Ann and me, since they knew it would mean something to us. Spiritually speaking, it doesn’t get much more selfless than that, especially for people who don’t believe in a deity, much less any form of prayer. If only more of us believers could be so thoughtfully giving…

So, here I sit, pondering all of this, my feet being gently washed by countless people. I struggle to put into some kind of meaningful expression the impact of tables turning, of the donor who quickly became a recipient. All I can say is thank you. Thank you for breathing restorative life into me and for the profound lessons your gifts continually teach me. In you and in the giving of your very selves, I have seen the face of Jesus Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to offer his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Again, I offer my love and thanks to God and for God in you!

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On Becoming a Kidney Donor

Just in case you haven’t yet heard, on next Wednesday January 26, I have been given the extraordinary opportunity to donate my left kidney to a woman from my church named Ann. Towards the beginning of last year Ann shared with our church that she was suffering kidney failure and would need a kidney transplant. Since then Ann has gone through multiple tests and fistula surgeries to prepare for dialysis treatments, hoping, as anyone in her situation does, for a transplant.

Before I get into explaining how and why I made the decision to become a kidney donor for Ann, I want to admit that talking about this has proved to be very difficult for me. On the one hand, whenever I do share about the donation process, I am thankful for the support and prayers most everyone has offered for Ann and me. But on the other hand, I get quickly embarrassed by the attention and adulation I’ve received from folks who just want to share their appreciation. That in a nutshell is why I get leery about telling folks that I’m donating a kidney.
As to the question of why I’m doing something like this, it’s simple: I’m donating my kidney to help Ann, and that’s it. My one satisfaction comes from knowing I have the chance to help a friend and sister in Christ. Keeping me from any other lesser motives is Jesus’ admonition that says, “But when you give…, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). Again, the reward for me comes from the act of giving. So why should I broadcast it and risk further discomfort of the limelight?

I’m sharing my reasoning and decision making for one big reason: that you can understand what goes into a decision like this and discover how viable an option it may be for you or someone you know to be a live organ donor. If my sharing would encourage someone else to donate an organ and give the gift of life to someone else, that more than doubles the satisfaction for me.

Up until learning about Ann’s predicament, I had never before even remotely considered being a living organ donor. But shortly after Ann made her announcement that she would need a kidney transplant, she shared with me that one of her biggest fears is that her blood type is O+ and that there aren’t too many other O+ folks out there, let alone those who would donate a kidney. I thought to myself, “Yeah, I know what you mean. I’m O+, too. We can give to anyone, but only receive from someone of the same type.”

Then an unusual thought came to my mind, “Wait, I am O+. I wonder what’s involved in this whole donation thing.” So, I went to the University of Maryland’s kidney donation site, and looked into it. I learned that donating a kidney is a worthwhile option that is far less evasive and risky for the donor than in used to be. People can live perfectly fine with just one kidney, and the surgery, performed almost entirely laparoscopically, is followed by a short recovery time—just a few weeks!

Then I got to thinking about two people I had gotten to know in the last several years whose lives were saved by receiving an organ donation. One was a former landlord who received a heart transplant. The second was a man from my church who received a living liver donation from his son. In both cases, I saw how difficult it was to find a donor but also how receiving a needed organ saved their lives while returning them to a good quality of life.

When I saw Ann again on a Sunday morning, I asked her if there was a form or application someone would fill out to be a donor. She assured me there was, and when I came into my office the next morning, there was a large brown envelope with an application inside of it sitting right on my desk. So, I looked through it, went home that afternoon and asked Blairlee what she thought, and to my surprise, after looking into it, she was highly supportive.

Then I began the testing process. An initial cross-match test found Ann and me to be an acceptable match. A few months after that I began more intensive testing which included a whole battery of blood tests, a glucose tolerance test, and a urine test to determine my baseline health. Kidney donors need to be in very good condition. At every point in the donation evaluation process, the health and safety of the donor is the primary factor. Nothing would be done to jeopardize the short-term or long-term health of the donor, which has been a great comfort to me. Along those lines, the surgeons made clear to me that I needed to drop some weight, a minimum of 10 lbs. but ideally close to 50 lbs. Thankfully, over these past five months, I’ve almost met the 50 lb. goal and intend to keep losing weight and keep it off in order to take good care of my health and my remaining kidney.

The final part of the donation evaluation was a full day of testing and interviews. Over the course of the day, I was given some education on the donation process, the donor and recipient surgery and the recovery. That was followed by more blood tests, a chest x-ray, a CT scan of my kidneys and surrounding anatomy, a psycho-social evaluation with a social worker, an appointment with my donor surgeon, and a full physical including an EKG. Ann’s husband Dave later quipped that at the very least I got one heck of a physical out of the whole deal!

A few weeks later, a multidisciplinary team looked at all the test results from Ann and me, determined that we were good to go, and set a surgery date. Right now, I can’t wait for us to get to January 26th and have the surgery. For both Ann and me, that will become a hallmark day in both of our lives.

I want to say again how incredibly touched and grateful I feel for the outpouring of love, support, and prayers many of you have offered Ann and me as we prepare for the donation surgery. That has taken what has been a deeply moving process and made it all the more beautiful. Every step along the way, Ann, our families, and I have seen, heard, and felt the presence and leading of God. In recent weeks, we have experienced God in the love so many of you have given us.

Even as strenuous and at times overwhelming the donation process has been, it’s all worth it for nothing else but two reasons: the hope of Ann returning to health with a functioning kidney and to hear others say, “If you can do something like donate a kidney, I could consider doing something like that, too.” That truly makes my joy complete!

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