By Mary Oliveira
On St. Patrick’s Day of this year – with the “luck of the Irish” undoubtedly on my side, I donated my right kidney. This life-changing moment – for both myself and, of course, my kidney recipient – was the culmination of a 7-month journey from the day I heard from a friend in need late last summer. Despite my initial lack of knowledge regarding the living donor process, I found myself moving forward without hesitation and with no shortage of love and support from my husband and children.
The timing of my living donation very nearly aligned with “National Donate Life Month” in April, a time for all Americans to celebrate the generosity of those who have saved lives by becoming donors and encouraging others to follow their example. While thousands of people across the United States receive the gift of life each year through organ transplantation (2020 actually set an annual record in organ donation for the 10th consecutive year – yes, even in the middle of a pandemic, Americans have a great capacity for generosity and resilience!), the number of people in need of organs remains staggeringly high. According to a resolution on “National Donate Life Month” recently issued by the Biden Administration, another person is added to the organ donation list every nine minutes. Indeed, Americans from every community are needed to help those whose livelihoods literally depend on it.
After my decision to move forward with my living donor journey, I spent several months going through extensive medical assessments to determine my viability. We learned in mid-January that I was “approved,” with the recommendation of my fantastic medical team of pursuing a Kidney Paired Donation (versus the Direct Donation I originally intended). This meant loading our medical files into a national database to seek out and make the most successful match possible. While I set out on this journey with the singular focus of helping a friend in need, I gained so much more than I ever expected. An appreciation for my health, an awareness for the incredible medical process that is organ donation and a greater understanding of and empathy for those in need. And our KPD resulted in 4 matches being made!
As surgery day dawned, I felt the very first moments of nerves as I traveled to UPMC Pinnacle hospital. The next thing I knew, I woke up in recovery. I cannot express my level of gratitude to the wonderful team at UPMC who saw me through this journey. Everyone from the transplant coordinators to my personal advocate, the surgeons and medical team and the amazing nurses who supported me at every step and continue to care for me as I recover. I remain amazed about the enormous impact that what felt like a relatively minor action (on my part) could have on a life. And, of course, it helps to have a world-class cheering squad through the support of my family and friends.
“People assume you have to be the same blood type or you have to be related to donate an organ, but the number one requirement is that you have to be willing to be a donor,” my incredible transplant surgeon at UPMC Pinnacle, Danielle Ladie, M.D. says. “With living donation and the selfless actions of people like Mary, UPMC can help patients reduce time spent on the transplant waiting list so they can get back to enjoying life with family and loved ones.”
As I write this message a few weeks after my donation, the soreness I’m experiencing is easily overshadowed by the pride I feel in my new “badge of honor” – a scar that I will hold forever as a reminder of the easy decision I made to raise my hand. I have rarely felt so grateful in my life to have been able to make that call to my friend and excitedly share the news that “I was approved!”
The kidney is the most transplanted organ via living donation. There are close to 114,000 people in the United States who are in need of an organ transplant; and sadly, close to 20 will die each day waiting for one. I share my story to say that I can handle feeling a little sore and having a scar to help lower that number; and to spread the message that many of us have the power to help: one donor can potentially save up to eight lives through organ donation. You can help fill the gap between the availability of organs and people who need them. I encourage you to learn more by visiting the U.S’s official living donor website and UPMC’s Living Donor webpage.
Mary Oliveira is chief membership officer of the PA Chamber.