This article was originally published in The Washington Post on October 2. This is not an article I am particularly fond of. A living donor now regrets the decision he made at age 18. As the recipient of a kidney via living donation, and knowing of at least a couple of people who were willing to donate a kidney anonymously (sometimes referred to as an undesignated or altruistic donation), it troubles me that Mr. Poulson now regrets his decision. It also troubles me that living donors may be putting their lives at risk beyond the immediate risk of the surgery itself. Even so, I think this is worth reading the perspective of a young living donor. Please note that this is article is particularly applicable to the US context.
You may or may not want to read the comments following the article, however. Some are disheartening and mean-spirited. Others are encouraging.
By Michael Poulson
When I was 18, my stepfather’s brother had been on dialysis for just over a year. He was thin, he exercised regularly and he seemingly was in perfect health, but inexplicably his kidneys began to fail him. Although I was just about to leave for college, I’d heard enough about the misery of dialysis to decide to get tested as a possible donor. In the back of my mind, I knew that the chances of our compatibility were incredibly low because we were not related by blood. Perhaps that made it easy for me to decide to get tested.
When we received the results, I was stunned to find out that he and I were a match. The transplant team gave me plenty of opportunities to back out of the donation, and it put me through countless evaluations, physical and psychological. Much of my family was steadfast against my becoming a donor. Looking back, who could blame them? Their son-grandson-nephew was going to undergo a major operation with no benefit to himself.
However, I continued to be confident in my choice. I relied on the one fact that would be repeated to me many times: “The rate of kidney failure in kidney donors is the same as the general population.” Why wouldn’t everyone donate a kidney, I wondered.
My mother was the only one to — reluctantly — support my decision. She accompanied me to San Francisco, where the surgery took place, and we settled in for the weeks that I would spend recovering. On the day of the surgery, anesthesia flowed into my arm and the world swiftly slipped away. Then, just as quickly, it seemed, I awoke, nauseated and confused. So much preparation for such a short nap. The anxiety I’d felt about the surgery was now gone — as was one of my kidneys.
An uneventful recovery came and went. I returned to college and resumed a normal life. Likewise, my step-uncle did very well and is living a full and healthy life, as is my donated kidney.
Five years after the surgery, when I was 23 and getting ready to go to medical school, I began working in a research lab that was looking at kidney donors who had gone on to develop kidney failure. For that research, I talked to more than 100 such donors. In some cases, the remaining kidneys failed; in others, the organ became injured or developed cancer. The more I learned, the more nervous I became about the logic of my decision at age 18 to donate.
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