Pamela Davis was recently interviewed by CKF Program Manager, CC Cunningham, to learn more about her story and delve deeper into her experiences with living organ donation. Pamela is an elementary school teacher and two-time living organ donor, who has donated her kidney and a portion of her liver within the last two years.
I was born and raised in George West, TX. I moved to San Antonio when I was 12, so I’ve pretty much lived in San Antonio all my life. I’ve been teaching pre-k and kindergarten for 17 years, now in my 18th year. This year has certainly not been an easy one, but it’s my first year teaching first grade, so it’s a new adventure for me. I have two kids: my daughter is 16 years old and my son is 12.
Organ donation was always just one of those things for me where I thought, “Yeah, you’re an organ donor on your driver’s license. Cool, sounds good. Take what you want when I pass away.” It wasn’t until I learned more about living organ donation, about five or six years ago, that I became more interested in the whole concept and wanted to dive a little deeper. Becoming a living donor definitely interested me, but it wasn’t really something I ever saw myself doing because of my weight—I’ve struggled with being overweight my entire life. The reality of being healthy enough to ever do something like donate an organ just wasn’t feasible at the time.
In March of 2018, I decided to make a change in terms of my weight. At that time, I weighed 295 lbs.—and I’m barely 5’2″ on a good day. I mean, I was morbidly obese. My daughter had taken a photo of me and suddenly, something just clicked. I said to myself, “You know what? I can’t do this anymore; I’m miserable. I’m going to get diabetes; I’m going to die young. I’ve got to change things.” My whole family has a history of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. I didn’t want to be in the same boat or go down that same path. That’s when I started watching what I ate and working out. Within five months, I lost about 60-70 lbs.
Around that same time, I made the decision to donate my kidney to a girl I went to high school with, named Jennifer. Growing up, we never ran in the same circles or anything—I think I stayed at her house for a sleepover once—and being friends on Facebook was the extent of our friendship. In August 2018, Jennifer made a Facebook post that described her battle with diabetes and subsequent stage 4 kidney disease, with a link to a living organ donation program and a brief medical questionnaire. She had been struggling with diabetes for a long time and, when she learned that she needed a kidney transplant, her doctors told her that a living donor would be a better option compared to a deceased donor, in terms of shorter wait times and better outcomes.
As soon as I saw her Facebook post, there was no doubt in my mind: I thought, “Yeah, I want to do that!” I responded within an hour of her posting and filled out the medical questionnaire immediately. The hospital didn’t waste any time: they called me two days later and asked me to come in for blood testing to determine if we were compatible. After the blood tests, they called me another two or three days later to tell me that I was a match! It wasn’t until I went in for my follow-up tests that they informed me I needed to lose more weight in order to become Jennifer’s donor. I was still a good 40-50 lbs. away from being considered healthy enough to donate. It was October at this point in the testing—Jennifer had just gotten the stent put into her arm for dialysis and would be starting in January. She told me, “I really don’t want to be on dialysis. It is so hard on your body. They’ll have to take me kicking and screaming.” Dialysis was her biggest fear in this whole process. I remember thinking, “Okay. January. I need to make this happen before then.” That made me even more motivated to keep going with the weight loss. I was going to do what I had to do to make this work.
I wasn’t nervous or scared at all leading up to the surgery. I was eager and excited every step of the way. I was just ready to get it done. Every time my transplant coordinator would call me, I’d say, “If you need me to do this next week, I’m ready to go. Let’s get it done! The sooner the better.” I just really felt like I was meant to do this, like I was called to do this for Jennifer.
The transplant was in December of that year, just two days after Christmas. I had lost 150 lbs. by then and was healthy enough to donate. On the day of the surgery, they wheeled Jennifer and I into the operating room together and we were laying in separate hospital beds next to each other. She turned to ask how I was doing and I told her, “I’m good! You don’t have to worry. I had a talk with my kidney before we got here this morning and told her that she was going to a new home, so she better behave!”
As soon as I woke up from surgery, I asked to see Jennifer. I wanted to know that she was okay. My biggest fear through all of this was that she gets my kidney and her body rejects it. A part of me would feel like I failed her. I know she wouldn’t have felt that way and it’s completely untrue, but in my own head, I was worried it would happen and she would have to go through it all over again. Every time the doctor came in to check on me, I asked him, “How’s the kidney? How’s the kidney doing?”
Living kidney donation surgery is laparoscopic, so it’s not very invasive. That made the recovery easier post-donation. I mean, I felt really, really good. I didn’t have any issues and was back to working out after five weeks. Jennifer was discharged from the hospital two days after I was and they were able to take her off a lot of her medications fairly quickly after surgery. She started going for walks around her neighborhood and was able to go back to work in-person shortly after—a lot of the things that you and I take for granted, but Jennifer just couldn’t do because her body was too sick. Thankfully, she didn’t have any rejection issues—her doctor told her that she could not have gotten a better kidney.
I joined a lot of living donation blogs before donating my kidney and, one time, I saw somebody’s post about donating part of their liver and going on to donate their kidney. This immediately peaked my interest. My kidney donation was done through Methodist Hospital Specialty and Transplant, but they don’t do living liver donations. I reached out to University Transplant Center and asked how realistic it would be for me to donate a piece of my liver after already donating a kidney. They instructed me to fill out a similar questionnaire to the one I previously filled out for the kidney donation and they would see if I met all the basic qualifications. I donated the kidney in December 2018 and actually started the liver donation paperwork in November 2019, so it hadn’t even been a full year yet. I also didn’t know anyone who needed a liver; I was just going to be randomly matched with someone.
I completed all the testing and was cleared for donation in January 2020. However, because I’m a teacher and because the process of living liver donation is much more invasive than the kidney, I wanted to hold off until my summer break in June so that I had enough time to recover in between school years. The transplant center agreed and said they would look for a match in the meantime. Of course, then the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent quarantine happened that March, so I just assumed I’d have to wait another year before being able to go through with the donation. However, the hospital called me in May and ended up scheduling me for a swap. Because my blood type is O negative (the universal blood type), it’s so much easier to be paired with a match. In this swap that I’d be participating in, there was an adult with a family member who was trying to donate a piece of their liver to them, but they were not a match. There was also a child—completely unrelated to the adult and family member—who needed a liver, but didn’t have a donor. The adult’s family member was a match for the child and I was a match for the adult…so, we did the swap! I donated a portion of my liver to the adult and the adult’s family member donated a portion of theirs to the child.
My first question immediately after surgery again was, “How is my recipient?” I obviously didn’t know the person—I don’t even know if they’re male or female—but I just needed to know they were okay. Last I heard, they were out of the hospital and doing great. The child is doing amazingly as well. Everything couldn’t have gone better. I kept thinking the hospital would let the recipients’ names or identities slip, but because of HIPAA protections, I got nothing. However, when I went for my follow-up appointment, however, the doctors did say that the adult who received my liver and the family member who gave theirs to the child are both okay with us meeting eventually, so now we’re just waiting on the family of the child to confirm (because it’s a swap, everybody has to agree on meeting, otherwise, none of us can). But, with COVID still going on, I’m not sure how long that process will take. I would very much like to meet them though. With the kidney donation, I get to see Jennifer healthy and living her life and hear about how wonderfully she’s doing. I would really like that with the liver donation as well: to see how they’re doing and hear how they’re doing things they weren’t able to do before. That’s the only reason I want to meet them—I don’t need a “thank you”: I just want to know that they’re doing better and how they’re quality of life has improved.
In terms of recovery—I’m not going to lie—I think I was a bit jaded by how easily I recuperated from the kidney donation. I knew in the back of my head that the liver was going to be more challenging, but I think I minimized (for my own sanity) how much harder it was going to be. I expected to bounce right back and, when I didn’t, it took a toll on me mentally. The surgery was in June 2020 and I’ve put on 20 lbs. since then. There are still some days when I wake up and I’m uncomfortable, but I just keep telling myself, “Remember your ‘why.'” Why did I do what I did? Because these people have been coping with a miserable illness for years—possibly, their whole lives. They live lives filled with setbacks and restrictions and discomfort. I do not. I’ve never had to deal with the things these individuals have experienced…and now I’m gonna complain? Over what? That I have to sit out for a few weeks? I have no reason whatsoever to complain. People who have witnessed my recovery have asked me if I regret it at all and, honestly? Even if you made it ten times harder, I would still do it again in a heartbeat.
At eight weeks out from the liver surgery, I celebrated by going skydiving for the first time! Since then, I’ve been skydiving three more times and I’m now working on becoming a certified skydiver and getting my license. For my most recent class, I went solo for the first time!
So, here I am: I’ve given two body parts away, I’m jumping out of planes, I’m teaching 25 first-graders during a global pandemic. My kidney and liver are now in two different people who are both doing great. Donating an organ did not change my life for the worse. It didn’t deprive me of my own health. I mean, I donated my kidney and saved one life, then donated my liver and saved two. How many people can say that? That’s what brings me peace and solace when I’m not feeling 100% during my recovery. People tell me all the time, “You saved those people’s lives!” But really, they saved mine. After losing those 60-70 lbs. before learning about Jennifer’s kidney condition, I’d taken a turn and was gaining the weight back. Knowing that I needed to continue losing weight in order to save her life was my push to keep going and, after I did, knowing that I needed to stay healthy to donate my liver became my push to keep going. If I hadn’t lost that weight, I’d probably have diabetes, heart disease, and a whole slew of other health issues. On top of that, I don’t think people realize how rewarding it is to do that for someone: to give them their health back that they wouldn’t have otherwise. The feeling you get from doing that—it’s completely indescribable. Nothing compares to it. Nothing. Nothing I will ever do in my life will compare to knowing that I saved these peoples’ lives—real human lives with families and homes and personalities and souls. Knowing that you did that for someone else doesn’t just positively impact your recipient; it positively impacts you like nothing else in the world ever, ever will.