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
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!
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 veg*ns, we all know that there is nothing more wonderful 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 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.
Update: The above article was written in late 2009. I'm happy to report that at least one other person (another vegan) has donated a kidney as a direct result of reading it. I've also heard from many people who are donating to friends and family members that my article has helped encourage them, and ease their worries.