I knew nothing about organ donation until my husband needed a transplant. After 27 years of juvenile diabetes, his kidneys failed and he went on dialysis. Many people do well on dialysis. Robb did not.
In the summer of 1999, I watched him waste away and lose muscle tone, energy and hope. He was exceptionally lucky and waited only three months to receive a kidney and pancreas from a deceased donor. Her name was Mary. She was from Ohio. A stranger’s gift has kept him going for the last 17 years.
When Robb was transplanted, we didn’t know anyone else who had a transplant until we became part of Team Pittsburgh and attended the 2004 Transplant Games. It was incredible to see thousands of vibrant people being active in sports and to imagine that they would have died without an organ donation. We became active with the team and helped to start a local support group for others suffering with kidney disease.
In 2005, my mom died on her 75th birthday in a crowded restaurant. Surrounded by unopened presents and cards, I stared as medics wheeled her past horrified diners. On that late summer evening, I was sure that I would never eat there again and that life would never be the same.
In another state, Dolores “Dee” Iannacone’s family was celebrating her 70th birthday with a huge bash, fearing it would be her last. Her vitality drained with each successive year of peritoneal dialysis. Her own mother and sister had fought kidney disease and lost. At that party, her husband, children and grandchildren were creating happy memories to hold onto when she slipped beyond their reach.
As I emerged from grief, the thought of being a living kidney donor stalked me, invading dreams and stealing sleep. After mom’s death, I felt drawn back to my faith. On Easter 2006, I finally realized that love is born from sacrifice like Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation or the pain of giving of a mother giving life to a child.
My husband and I do not have children so I had never experienced the sacrifice of motherhood. Like many women, I was never happy with my body. Could a perfect match come from someone imperfect like me?
I was undecided until a chance encounter with the nurse who cared for Robb after his transplant prompted me to act. She now worked for our local organ procurement agency, coordinating live altruistic donations. I was reassured that I already knew and trusted the person who could start me on my journey as a living donor. I knew several people who were waiting for kidneys so I asked the transplant center to match me with a clinically compatible recipient.
Always healthy, I found it humbling to undergo invasive tests that people with life-threatening illnesses face routinely. Tests revealed that my left kidney was significantly larger than my right. When there’s a size discrepancy, surgeons permit the donation only of the smaller kidney. This meant I would need to consent to an open donor nephrectomy instead of the less invasive laparoscopic procedure.
My husband was extremely anxious, while I felt God’s overwhelming peace. I would share my life in a miraculous way.
Years ago, a family we’d never met reached beyond their pain to give my husband, a stranger, the gift of life. It was my privilege to echo their generosity by sharing my good health with another stranger, a woman near my mother’s age.
My gift to Dee enabled her to continue being a gift to her large, loving family for nine more years. She celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary and witnessed her beloved grandchildren graduate college and get married. Most importantly, she was able to hold her first two great-grandchildren in her arms.
After losing my own mother, I felt blessed to be matched with an older recipient like Dee who gave me the comfort of a mother’s voice, only a phone call away.
After Dee’s funeral last December, I was surprised to learn that she had worked with a volunteer from her local library to write her autobiography. She mentioned me in the dedication: “to my special angel, Lora Ward Wilson, who selflessly gave me a kidney and a second chance at life.”