'I Gave Away a Kidney'

One woman's journey to donate her kidney.

July 28, 2009, 9:17 AM

KELSO, Scotland, Aug. 4, 2009 — -- Oh yes you can! When I heard the radio appeal asking for live donors to part with a kidney, I punched my husband (sitting alongside me at lunch) and shouted that's something I can do! I don't think he thought it would ever happen.

It took many months and trips from our Scottish Borders village to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh visiting all the most expensive pieces of hospital equipment before I got there. Tests for every bit of me and blood samples taken at every turn. The phlebotomist was called in once or twice as my veins got bored with giving and would only supply for her. So I had a magnificent road test and was deemed fit.

Others who have been down this road have been a bit upset by the necessary meeting with a psychiatrist. But even that proved entertaining -- he was friendly and witty and I did see he needed to establish my reasons for this peculiar move. I learned that one woman was trying to do this without telling her husband. Well I wasn't so daft. He saw my husband too – I don't know what detail these two went into, but I thought husband looked a little sheepish when I collected him!

Who's got it people ask. Well I know the recipient is a man and lives in England, not Scotland. It is up to him to contact me if he wants to. I've heard he is going to write. But I am just happy to know that it has all worked, and very well I gather.

Why did you do it, ask others. So many different motives. There are few simple civic gestures that we can make – like giving blood – and this just came my way. I can give a bit of a life again to someone doomed to the dialysis machine I thought. No children of my own, so less responsibility there. Long years of happy marriage, so husband just resigned and not upset. Too much privilege in my life, so giving something to someone less fortunate seemed a good notion. No fear of hospitals or operations. Didn't seem all that big a deal, in short.

And I knew, of course, that the team would take the very greatest care – which, of course, they did! I have nothing but praise for the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

After I set up the charity Paintings in Hospitals Scotland in 1991, I had spent some time in the renal unit in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, run at that time by Dr. Anderton, putting up our rented paintings. Dr. Anderton had bought many pictures himself for the unit, so I did a complete re-hang, left a brilliantly decorated unit and had an understanding of the miseries and tedium of being on dialysis.

The Kidney Removal Surgery

So what actually happened, then? Well I arrived on a Monday ready for surgery the following morning. But, alas, my intended recipient had developed a sore throat and was unable to receive my kidney. Think how awful for him! (Somehow I had learned it was a man.) When I telephoned my husband and said I just had to write, back came the reply "But don't make it sentimental!" So my card just said I was sorry we hadn't managed it and wished him good luck. Surely, disappointment must be one of the many variables when it comes to who is next!

And next? Off I went to surgery the following morning to give my kidney to the next person on the list and all was fine. When I came round in the very spacious and efficient high dependency unit, I quickly discovered my neighbor (yards away and safely behind a large curtain) was not handling things well. Each time a number of careful and loving nurses approached him he let out a volley of language that was so foul it was funny! And nurses would speed away from his bedside in merry, understanding laughter before having another attempt. When I finally caught a glimpse of this monster, I saw a little white-haired person rather older than me, the picture of a model patient.

But it must have been agony when you came round, wasn't it? Well, I was very sore of course, but all dozy with the anesthetic. And I had this wee button to press which provided morphine. The morphine, however, caused me nausea. Well, my mother had suffered from nausea through strong cancer treatment and I had often wondered what it was like. Aha, I thought now, so this is nausea, poor, poor Mum. I don't like it. We'll do without the morphine and the nausea and see what gives. And I was fine. I took the pain killers on offer and asked for more when I needed them. Pain is managed so much better these days and I felt the benefit of that.

So it was a major operation, wasn't it? Well yes, but they did it with keyhole surgery. One hole for the camera, another for the tools, a couple of drain holes and a wee slit beneath bikini level (me in a bikini??) center front. At least that's what I think the holes were for. And I healed up pretty quickly.

My Recovery

How long did it take for you to recover? The team made sure I had all sorts of support built in back home, lasting for about three full weeks. I owe such a big debt of thanks to the kind people who helped me when I got home, taking it in turns: my cousin from 100 miles away, my best mate from the south of England, my sister from the same part of the world, and specially to my neighbor just up the road who looked in to cherish us both on a daily basis: God bless Dot. We also acquired nice new recipes as our helpers grappled with a strange stove and did things their way (doesn't often happen like that in my house!)

Recovery was quite tricky. Getting well after keyhole surgery is much easier of course, so I felt well very quickly. But of course I got very tired and, bliss, had every excuse to disappear upstairs for a quick kip. Still do. One must remember that this was a major surgical operation and the ensuing trauma is something that lasts for quite a long time. In short I have had to take care, in a more specific manner than is usually meant. I still do.

Two days after I got back, my husband had to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, something he hadn't done before. I spent some time in the morning typing up his lecture and some more time in the afternoon teaching my cousin how to manage the laptop and projector, and making absolutely sure all the images were in place – you know the first time you try to do things on a computer, they all go wrong. They sure did for my husband, poor man, so we grappled with that too. All went well in the event – I just felt overwhelmingly tired after the set off.

To go back to the kidney: don't you need two? No, as it happens you don't! My second kidney had picked up the full time job in 10 hours I was told. Also, most of the patients I met were managing on very much less than 100% of one alone. Some had waited 15 or more years – my good friend on the other side of the ward had waited 9 or 11 years. What a life! There are thousands of people waiting for a new kidney, thousands. And, as I write, I think about 25 or so people in the UK have gone down the 'altruistic' line like me.

And it was all SO interesting. Quite funny at moments. The people I met were so nice. You have to be very awake talking to the surgeons, and you have to suss hospital behavior patterns and hierarchies and where you fit (difficult). Our National Health Service is wonderful in my book. Visitors were pretty good, too – though the arrival of an old school friend with a book two hours after theatre baffled us both a bit. Of course, she didn't know I had been put back by a day, bless her. After the op on Wednesday I was driven home on Sunday, promising the hospital staff I would not languish in bed. Nor I did. The happiness quality of home was very high.

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