Monday, July 8, 2024

The Gift of Life: How and Why. One Non-Directed Kidney Donor's Story

In the United States, more than 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant. In the meantime, the median wait time is more than three years. Perhaps you know someone who is on that fateful list. Or, maybe you know someone who is a living donor. Potential donors, willing donors and actual donors are moms and dads, aunts and uncles, siblings and neighbors. They are teachers, athletes and friends. One of them happens to be my cousin, Amy. 

Amy is what is known as a non-directed kidney donor. This means that on June 6, 2024 Amy electively, freely and officially donated her kidney to a person she may never meet or talk to. She was the first person in a four person chain. In other words, she was the catalyst, the wildcard, the x factor for eight surgeries that  afforded four individuals with new kidneys. This is her story.

The positive power of social media
As a teacher and an adult, the tenor of conversations about social media is rarely positive. The focus seems to center on its addictive nature and the detrimental effects on the mental health and well being of young people. It's not hard to see how it has taken its toll on interpersonal relationships and productivity. At its worst, social media can lead to isolation, cyberbullying, gross misinformation and more. The shadow sides are real, but that perspective is limited. 

As we know, social media helps people stay connected, gain information about current events; it provides a platform to promote our passions, and share our stories. Many times, the ideas, questions and calls to action make an impact. Listeners and followers are not passive people. A dynamic relationship has taken root and leads to something new... something unexpected... something more. Such is the case with Amy—a follower of @SharonSaysSo and the podcast Freakonomics.

Listening Up
Before the election in October 2020, Sharon McMahon, a past high school Government teacher, photographer, and business coach, started teaching about how the Electoral College worked. Sharon sought to post non-partisan truth on politics and government systems. She created short videos posted on Instagram as @SharonSaysSo about the basics of the U.S. Government. Amy and her sister Jodi found her format helpful and informative. Sharon became a household name and her posts a regular point of conversation. But how might that lead to kidney donation? A platform dedicated to Civics doesn't seem a likely venue to prompt such altruism. Right? Wrong.

Following a person's podcast or blog affords a special lens into the creator's life. One's personal reality is seldom completely detached from what we do and how we do it. For example, Sharon's followers know that she has a six year old son (and three other children), that she loves wildlife and has a husband who had renal failure. As written on Destination Duluth, When the pandemic hit in 2020, her husband needed a kidney transplant and had to be in Rochester at the Mayo Clinic, Thankfully, her husband’s transplant was successful.  As a loyal listener, Amy was dialed in—aware and empathetic to his plight, his journey and praise God, his recovery.

Furthermore, social media—its influence, stories, lessons and lore does not exist in isolation. Amy also listens to Freaknomics. One episode "Make Me a Match" was the spark and to the kindle from @SharonSaySo. A fire started burning.

Amy looked into what it would take to become a non-directed kidney donor with personal research and reflection. In addition to multiple blood draws and urine samples, she underwent extensive physical and psychological testing,  She realized this was something she could do. It became something she wanted to do. How? Why?

The How
To me, the  how of organ donation  is endlessly fascinating. Through Amy, I have learned that just 1% of kidney transplants involve a non-directed kidney donor. Though understandable, only about 100 people a year elect to make this life saving gift. Furthermore, many willing donors are not approved. However, as a marathon runner (she has run over 20 of them) I was not surprised that her kidney was in great shape. She registered with the University of Washington health center in Seattle and was told they would match her kidney—based on her blood and tissue types as well as her age. In three months time, the recipient of her kidney can reach out to her to share their story—or not. Amy understands why someone might choose to remain anonymous. Time will tell.

Amy's surgery was delayed about two weeks because the intended recipient had an infection. On donation day, she was informed that she had total freedom to change her mind. If she wanted to back out no one would second guess her decision. Though one's kidneys are located in the back of the stomach area, just below the rib cage, and on each side of the spine, kidney removal is through the abdomen. Her surgeon was able to remove hers by hand through her four inch incision. Her kidney now accompanies the recipient's two others. That's right, Amy has one kidney and her recipient now has three.

Amy was told after donating her kidney she must limit salt and alcohol and medications like Advil, Aleeve, and Aspirin are off the table. As a runner, this is no small sacrifice but Amy's point of view on that and why she did this are no different.

My Aunt Wendy's first marathon: 2010. Amy and I ran the half
The Why
Amy's why is very clear. It also happens to be in the form of a question. She decided to donate her kidney because she believes, "How often do you get to save a life?" Hearing this question prompts a pause. Awe. Inspiration. Hard to argue that...and it's true. Amy has saved a life in the most literal sense possible. But I'd like to think it's metaphorical as well. More on that later.

Amy credits her parents (or blames them?!) for the example they have always shown. Her mom— my Aunt Wendy and her dad—my Uncle Jay are two of the more hospitable, supportive and generous people I know. Though I don't live that close to them, I have always known their home to be a place of welcome for friends, family and those in need. Clearly those values have taken shape in their daughters.

Amy noted that her mom has passed on Tikkun Olam—a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world" or "mending the world." I am familiar with this principle because it underscores the ethics course I teach. Organ donation is a moral issue. It ushers in several ethical questions worth considering such as Why not create an open market for organ donors? And What is altruism? Is anyone truly altruistic? I think we have a pretty good answer here. 

Amy thanked her Dad for living by the words of Luke's Gospel. In Luke 12:48, he writes "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more." I appreciate her humility and willingness to live this teaching.

At one point her surgeon moved her to a recovery room with a view. He said “heroes go to that side of the building.” Amy is many things—she’s fun and funny, loyal and loving. She’s an awesome teacher, runner, wife, daughter, sister, aunt and friend. Hero is one too.

5 of 8 Stricherz women/cousins. 7 of 8 are teachers ;-) 

L’Chaim
I traveled to the Pacific Northwest this summer because I wanted to spend time with Amy and her family. I wanted to see and hear for myself more about this journey. Why?

To me, Amy flipped the script. Most of us live our lives in a fairly predictable way. As one of many Stricherz teachers, I know that summer brings for all of us time to travel and reach personal goals. We get more time with family and friends. We come together to celebrate and remember, all the while doing our personal best and hoping for the best for the next generation. In Amy, I found that some of us step up and out into the world in a totally selfless, loving and new way. 

While it makes sense that Amy might donate a kidney, it's nothing anyone of us could have ever predicted. I have always felt fortunate to have cousins that I love and admire, but in Amy I have a family member I want to share with the world. She has given me a new look on life, She has reignited my sense of hope. She makes me cry (in a good way) and smile at the same time. The movie InsideOut should consider adding a character like this one.

3 donors!
I wasn't sure if I was going to write about Amy's story, but after our time together. I realized I couldn't not try to. I asked her if it would be okay as she took me to the airport. Though she is not a person to seek personal attention, I had a sense that she would say “yes,” if but for the purpose that her testimony might prompt another non-directed donor to step in and up.

At weddings and special occasions, you might have heard the word L’Chaim. It is a Hebrew phrase that translates to “to life.” But it's more than just words. I have wondered if the people who say it know what it actually means.

I have learned that some words can never be fully translated. We can get close but it's best to share a story or consider the sentiment behind the word to understand what it really means. As I was processing all of what I have learned through Amy and his gift of life, I came to the realization that her story captures L’Chaim perfectly. My only regret is that when we were all together on Sunday, I didn’t think to raise a glass and say that. A good reason to return.
Love you, AES

Photo Credits
Kidney Chain
Kidney Heart