A repost from the online version of The Globe and Mail, originally published on November 4, 2014, by Gabriella Goliger.
I GAVE A QUARTER-POUND OF LIFESAVING LOVE TO MY BROTHER
Recently, at age 65, I gave birth for the first time in my life. Well, not literally. But that’s how the amazing experience of donating a kidney to save my brother’s life made me feel.
Like any woman in the throes of childbirth, I experienced pain, fatigue and great dollops of anxiety – in my case about whether my little organ would function once “reborn.” The even greater worry was how my brother’s body would react to what it could not help but regard as a foreign invader, despite our genetic closeness. Truth be told, an organ transplant is anything but natural.
Our road to transplant surgery began in May, 2013, when my older brother, Dan – my only sibling – was diagnosed with irreversible kidney disease. It was merely a matter of time before his kidneys would fail completely. Dialysis could prolong his life, but only up to a point and at great cost to quality of life. His best hope was a transplant.
As this reality sank in, I began to learn more about those two fist-sized organs on either side of the spine. Each kidney is a miniature purification plant with more than a million tiny filters. Their unglamorous but essential job is to remove wastes from the blood. Day and night, they send clean blood back to the heart and waste products to the bladder in the form of urine. Kidneys also regulate the body’s water content and produce certain hormones.
Most of us can take this stuff for granted, but people with kidney disease feel themselves becoming bloated and poisoned daily. There are many causes of chronic kidney disease. In my brother’s case it was probably the result of a period of undiagnosed high blood pressure, along with his use of certain medications. By the time his doctors became aware of the problem, it was too late – so many of those precious tiny filters had been damaged.
After my brother’s diagnosis, I put myself forward as a potential donor. His wife, son and daughter were willing, too, but I was the most promising candidate as a blood relation with a good medical history and no big responsibilities such as kids at home.
It wasn’t a hard decision – a no-brainer, really. Aside from my partner, Barb, my brother is the most important person in my life. The thought of him becoming sicker and dying from this disease was unbearable. Also, the risk for the donor is minimal: A person can live as well with one kidney as with two, and the surgery has become routine.
For the recipient, too, the benefits far outweigh the risks, especially with a kidney from a living donor. This is amazing when you think that kidney transplants were still in their infancy in the 1960s, and that it was only in the 1980s that researchers developed drugs that could effectively trick the body into accepting donated tissue.
Now, the obstacle is not the science but the lack of donated organs. Demand hugely exceeds supply, and many people die waiting for a transplant.
To qualify as a donor, I went through a battery of tests to check if I was a) healthy, both physically and mentally, and b) a good match for my brother.
When the answer finally came back “yes,” I felt as proud as if I had run a marathon, as thrilled as if I had won a lottery. My pride swelled to new heights when, after the operation, our surgeon said: “You gave your brother a gorgeous kidney.”
Gorgeous, eh? Was it brainy, too? Would it grow up to become a Harvard grad?
Ah, silly me. My kidney was just a normal, functioning organ that began working right after being grafted into my brother’s body. And that was marvellous enough.
That is not to say the surgery was easy. The first few days I was a puddle of whimpering flesh, racked not by pain, which was well controlled with drugs, but by weakness that set my teeth chattering. Almost all of my energy was directed toward healing, so very little remained to make me feel human.
But that phase quickly passed. By the second week I was taking walks, albeit at a snail’s pace with frequent rests, and eating heartily.
Now, after 10 weeks, I’ve completely bounced back. I require no medications or diet restrictions. A thin red line along my side (a badge of honour) is my only reminder that I was ever under the knife.
For my brother, recovery has been more complicated. He is on immunosuppressant drugs to prevent his body rejecting the transplant. Those medications make him susceptible to infections of all kinds, as well as certain diseases, and he has to take them for the rest of his life. For the first few months, until his doctors get the balance just right, he is especially vulnerable. Still, he’s doing remarkably well, working full time (which he can do from home), taking country walks, enjoying his family and friends. He feels 10 years younger.
He and I are closer than ever, bound not just by blood but by a quarter-pound of flesh (what the average kidney weighs), and this shared experience of a scientific miracle and a gift of love.
In the past he was always my protector, the guy I could lean on, and he still is. But now, thanks to my gorgeous kidney, I’m able to take care of him, too.