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Kidney Karmarama, or… How My Kidney Found Mr. Right

Published on January 7, 2009 by   ·   89 Comments Pin It
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Kidney Karmarama, or… How My Kidney Found Mr. Right by Hillary Rettig

I had often thought when I encountered cruelty and neglect that there was a whole army of people who did these unspeakable things, a great, unheeding horde who never spared a thought for the feelings of the
helpless creatures who depended on them. It was frightening in a way, but thank heavens there was another army ranged on the other side, an army who fought for the animals with everything they had – with their
energy, their time, their money.” –
James Herriot

A healthy kidney

A healthy kidney

What’s the awesomest gift you can give someone? Their life back, right?

That’s what I had been thinking for a while. And so, I had been looking into donating a kidney. From my research I knew that the surgery was really safe (only 2/10,000 fatality rate, lower than for appendectomies), and that you can survive perfectly well with just one kidney. Really what you’re looking at is a bit of inconvenience in exchange for…saving someone’s life.

Sign me up!

My research eventually led me to a popular site called matchingdonors.com, and even though I knew what I was going to find there, I was NOT prepared. It’s like a dating site, except the personal ads are all from people begging you to save their lives by giving them a kidney. So it’s full of messages like:

“I’m 40 years old and want to live to see my kids grow up.”

“I’m 60 years old and hoping to live to attend my grandson’s graduation.”

“I’m 25 years old and just want the chance to live a normal life.”

Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it. Most of these people were on dialysis, where, three times a week, you sit for hours hooked up to a machine that does the kidney-work of filtering out waste from your
blood. Dialysis is, at best, a mixed blessing: it keeps you alive, but totally screws up your life and doesn’t even work all that well. Most dialysis patients are weak and sick all the time, and die within a few short years.

Once I saw the matching donors ads, I knew I would have to donate – how can you turn someone away when you’ve seen their face and heard their desperate story? In fact, I wished I had a thousand extra kidneys to
donate. But I only had one, so how to choose?

Lots of the people self-identified as animal lovers, with some including photos of themselves with their companion animals in their ads. As a vegan and animal/veg activist I knew I would definitely want to donate to one of them. And then I came across an ad without a picture that included this text:

“I am a retired Veterinarian from Colorado. My wife and I started a no-kill animal shelter 20 years ago to give animals a second chance at life. I would like a second chance too. We have invested everything to
help save the animals.”

My kidney starting singing sweet songs of love, having found its dream recipient. His name is Bill Suro, and the shelter he and his wife Nanci started in Denver is called MaxFund. They save sweeties like Millie, a dog who was found in New Mexico with anemia, a fused spine, grossly infected back feet, and (rage alert) BB shots embedded throughout her body. Many shelters would have euthanized her, but at Maxfund she got all the medical help she needed and is now whizzing around in a rollie cart! (See her story here; joyful weeping alert.)

So I called Bill and offered to donate. Then came a months-long battery of medical tests, including the ever-popular 24-hour urine collection, in which you get to pee into a giant bottle and then hand it over to
some lucky nurse. Then we had some vegan drama: some of my urine levels were low according to the standards of traditional medicine. Dr. John J. Pippin from the Physicians Committee for Responsible
Medicine
to the rescue! He wrote a note to me, which I forwarded to the transplant center, explaining, “Since many vegans have lower (healthier) protein intake than omnivores, and NO animal protein intake, their GFRs [glomerular filtration rates, y’all -HR] will often be lower…vegetarian and vegan diets actually improve
kidney function for patients with kidney disease.”

In November, I flew from Boston to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, where the transplant would take place. There, I met Bill and Nanci in person for the first time, which, as you can imagine, was
intense. They were filled with gratitude and amazement bordering on shock, since only about a 100 people a year get a kidney donated by a stranger. So, for them, this was like winning some kind of super-lottery. I understood their gratitude but felt uncomfortable over it. For me, the donation really was an inconvenience as opposed to a major sacrifice – I honestly don’t know why more people don’t do it. Besides, I am profoundly grateful for their twenty years’ commitment to helping animals, which seems like a much bigger deal.

The operation – in which the surgeon laparoscopically “popped” out my kidney through a small incision – was a snap. (I have a 1.5″ scar above my navel, and 2 tiny satellite scars where they inserted the
lights-and-camera action.) Afterwards, I was on an epidural for a day but after that never took any pain meds at all.

The main downside was a few weeks of inconvenience, as I mentioned earlier. Even though the surgery was minimally invasive, it does take time to recover. I needed to get a lot of rest and not lift heavy stuff for a while.

Healthwise, the main risk for the donor is hypertension, and the doctors also warn you against eating too much protein, which can strain the remaining kidney. Given that both conditions correlate with meat-eating
– no problemo! Oh, and you’re limited to one alcoholic drink a day, which I guess for some people could be a hardship; and they also warn you against activities like contact sports that could damage the remaining kidney. (If I ever need a kidney myself, by the way, I move to the top of the wait list.)

I lost some income due to down time. But there were no medical or out-of-pocket expenses for me, as the recipient and his insurance pays for everything.

And Bill? The minute my kidney was in him, I am told, it started producing urine like a champ – and although the surgery and recovery are a lot harder for the recipient than the donor, he’s doing great. He recently wrote me that, “a bad day now is still better than a good day on dialysis.”

A lot of people look at you weird when you tell them you’re donating a kidney to a non-family member, just as they look at you weird when you tell them you’re vegan. In this society, unfortunately, you can ruin
countless people’s lives running a corrupt investment fund and still meet with more social approval than if you try to lead a life of nonviolence and altruism. But we’re all working on that, right? So, just like with the veganism, I shout the donation out loud and proud.

I anticipated feeling great about having donated – and I do. (Research has shown that donors experience an uptick in self-esteem.) What I didn’t anticipate was that I would now have these two amazing people,
Bill and Nanci, in my life. They have really taken pains to grow the connection, sending me letters, cards, local newspapers and even cherished family photos. What a gift. (And let me acknowledge the others
whose love and support made the donation possible – especially my friend Deb, who, when I told her what I was doing, immediately volunteered to watch my dogs for weeks while I was away.)

As conscripts in the GirlieGirl Army, we all know that there is nothing more glamorific than saving a sweet life. At the same time, I know that not everyone’s going to sign up to donate. If you’re one who might, that
would be an amazing thing – and email me at lifelongactivist@yahoo.com for info or support, if you’d like. In the U.S. alone, more than 6,000 people every year, or around 1 every 90 minutes, dies waiting for a
kidney.

And if you can’t donate your kidney, at least donate some cash to Maxfund!

Sometimes, I find myself wondering what my kidney is up to at the moment. “I wonder if it’s walking by the pond.” “I wonder if it’s working at the vet clinic.” “I wonder if it’s watching bad tv.” I guess I’ve come to think of it as being like a dog I gave up for adoption. I don’t wonder if it’s happy, though, because I know that if any kidney is happy, mine is – having found its “Mr. Right,” an amazing being who shares its values and is committed to helping keep other amazing beings alive and happy.

By Special Guest Blogger Hillary Rettig.   Hillary is a Boston-based vegan and animal activist, and author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006). She is also a coach who helps activists, artists, students, entrepreneurs and others manage their time, overcome procrastination, and build rewarding careers. Email her at lifelongactivist@yahoo.com and visit  her online at www.lifelongactivist.com.

(ED’S NOTE: We are so grateful to know people like Hillary exist in the world.   Let her story move, inspire, and ignite your inner activist today.)

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Readers Comments (89)

  1. Emily says:

    that picture makes me hungry for lima beans

  2. Vegan_Noodle says:

    What a great, uplifting story!

  3. Jackie says:

    Hey Chloe, Thanks for posting this great story! Earlier this year I helped my dear friend Jessica lose 40 lbs so that she was able to donate a kidney to her sick father. Her father gave her life, and now she has returned the favor. It’s the greatest mitzvah a person can do.
    ~Jackie

  4. RubyAthena says:

    While I admire the courage, selflessness and humanity demonstrated by Ms. Rettig; it was moving to know that one can give such a great gift to another expecting nothing in return, I was a bit disturbed about “needless” surgeries. Needless in the sense that one really does not need it for oneself and one’s survival. Anytime you open up your body, even with a very small opening, one runs the risk of harm. This holds true for plastic surgeries as well.

    One may say that this is a bit selfish, however, I prefer to save my organs for any family and close friends that may have a need. My brother, for example, was born with 1 kidney. I am a perfect match for him so I am the designated donor and will gladly give it up to him should the time come.

  5. Danielle says:

    Thank you so much for this amazing post. This story is so inspirational and wonderful! Far from a “neeless” surgery, Hillary help saved a life! Sounds absolutely essential to me. Love knows no bounds.
    I hope Hillary’s kindness will help inspire others; it certainly has inspired me.

  6. […] are  two of the most popular causes among Firstgiving fundraisers.  You can read the whole story  here;  it’s posted on the  Girlie Girl Army Blog, where I also discovered what laparoscopic means. […]

  7. haley says:

    Wow. Just wow.

  8. kelly g. says:

    I’m really, truly humbled by your selflessness, Hillary.

    Who says animal rights activists don’t care about people, hmmm?

  9. […] details her story over at The GirlieGirl Army, in a humorous post titled “Kidney Karmarama, or How My Kidney Found Mr. Right”: What’s the awesomest gift you can give someone? Their life back, […]

  10. […] details her story over at The GirlieGirl Army, in a humorous post titled “Kidney Karmarama, or How My Kidney Found Mr. Right”: What’s the awesomest gift you can give someone? Their life back, […]

  11. […] You Be Giving More?” and Hillary was the featured guest presenter, discussing the story of her donation of a kidney to someone who was at the time a stranger.   To quote from the highbrow website description: There […]

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  14. sebastian martinez mendez says:

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  15. Ebony says:

    Congrats and welcome to the club!
    It took me a year an a half but 2 weeks ago today, i donated my left kidney laproscopically to my beloved father. i am amazed all around! I am amazed at the difference i his over all health that came from one simple little organ! My beautiful father’s blue eyes became brighter, his skin was clearer just the first day! His creatinines are in the normal range and so many little things that add up to one giant life changing decision.
    I am so thankful the world allowed me to do this for my dad

    I am surprised at how easy the whole surgery/recovery has been, I wish I had more kidneys, I could totally do this every 5 years are so if only I had the spare kidneys!

  16. rasel rana says:

    I am a healthy 26 year old male. Non-smoker, non drinker, healthy lifestyle. No history of disease. 0+ blood group. i need lot of money (Net US$ 80,000 ~ US$ 1,00,000). All are cost yours. Would like to donate my kidney. If interested, contact me at rasel_rana80@yahoo.com from bangladesh.
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