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You Could Be a Hero: April is National Donate Life Month

April 26, 2021 08:00 AM
By: Marla Fannin

​As you may know, April is National Donate Life Month. In 2021, Donate Life will have a very special and very personal connection to two PennDOT employees who were willing to share their stories. One will be a living organ donor for a friend and the other is a recent organ donor recipient—helped in his journey by the kindness of family and total strangers.

Meet Tara, a Living Donor

District 9 Community Relations Coordinator Tara Callahan-Henry will be a living donor when she helps her long-time friend Kelly McCabe by donating a kidney. Tara and Kelly have been friends since 1995 when they were roommates at Coastal Carolina University.

Kelly lives in South Carolina and the transplant will take place at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).

Kelly recently went through training to receive dialysis at home. She will continue with dialysis until her surgery, which was recently delayed for the second time due to issues in the cross match of blood. With surgery delayed, being able to stay home for dialysis makes things easier for Kelly.

A living donor transplant is a 5-step process. The steps include:

  • Referral
  • Evaluation
  • Homework, such as testing, gathering records and blood work
  • Selection
  • Surgery

The surgery has a low rate of complications. On average, 85% of patients discharged within 3 days, followed by 7 days of close follow-up.

In Tara and Kelly's situation, the living donor transplant is a non-direct donation. Once the surgery gets rescheduled, there may be two, three, or four sets of donors and recipients and all the surgeries will occur on the same day. Tara will be a match for one of the other recipients, while Kelly will be a match with one of the other donors. The donor and recipient in each match can meet after the transplant if they wish to do so.

Because Kelly has had issues with the cross match of blood, the next time MUSC finds a match for Kelly things will move very quickly to ensure that the cross match of blood does not have time to fail prior to surgery.   

Once Tara is notified of the rescheduled surgery, she'll report for COVID testing and final bloodwork. After that, she'll have to be in South Carolina for at least a week after the transplant.

Click here to learn more about MUSC's donor program.

Meet Justin, a Transplant Recipient

On the flip side of the transplant situation is Justin Bowser, a Transportation Construction Inspector in PennDOT's District 9. Justin has been dealing with diabetes since age 13. A consequence of that has been diabetic kidney disease, which led to eventual kidney failure.

Justin started on home dialysis in September of 2020 and had been awaiting a kidney transplant through University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Being able to perform the dialysis at home allowed Justin to continue working.

Although expecting to go through the transplant surgery sometime before the end of 2021, circumstances moved more quickly, and Justin was notified in early March that UPMC had his match set up and surgery was scheduled for mid-March.

Justin reported to Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh on March 18 for the transplant. Things went smoothly and he was discharged to his parent's home on March 21.

Staying with his folks gives him a good support system since he was initially in some pain and could not lift more than 5 pounds—increased to 10 pounds. Justin will stay with his parents for 6-8 weeks post-surgery.

Another aspect to Justin's surgery has been the immunosuppressant drugs he needs to take to helped ward off his body rejecting the kidney. For 90 days post-surgery, Justin needs to stay away from public exposure as much as possible, which will extend his recovery time.

Justin is close with his brother Joey, who will be a donor in the same kind of scenario as Tara & Kelly. Justin has noted that he feels quite fortunate—there were many people willing to donate—a real testament to the naturally positive, cheerful person Justin is.

Unlike Tara & Kelly's situation, the surgeries associated with Justin's plan will take place on different days. Joey's surgery is scheduled for later in April. The woman who donated to Justin has a niece who will receive a new kidney from a different donor.

Now that his transplant has taken place, Justin feels better in general, although he has noted that it takes time for your body to adjust and get used to its "new normal." Luckily, he feels a little bit better every day.  A great benefit to his new normal is that home dialysis is now a thing of the past. He's also adjusting to having people around 24/7 since he's lived alone for the past six years—but he's thrilled to have his family's support and they are thrilled to see his health improving.

Transplant is important. Studies show that individuals receiving a new kidney do better than those on dialysis. Patients who have been living with a transplanted kidney for 10 years demonstrate a greater likelihood of still being alive than those on dialysis. For every 10 patients receiving a new kidney, eight will still have that kidney working three years after the operation.

According to the UPMC website, every moment is critical for the more than 96,000 Americans on the kidney transplant waiting list. 

During a living–donor kidney transplant, a healthy kidney from a living person is removed and transplanted into a person with a failing kidney. Benefits of a living-donor kidney transplant include:

  • Little or no wait time. Patients can receive the transplant sooner and schedule the surgery at a time that's convenient for both the donor and the recipient.
  • Quicker recovery time. Both recipients and donors often return to their normal, active lives within weeks to months following living donor transplant surgery because of new minimally invasive surgery procedures.
  • Improved long-term outcomes. Living donor transplant reduces the risk of rejection because the kidney is functioning up until the time of surgery.

    A healthy donor must: 
  • Be between the ages of 18 and 75
  • Have an adequate support system and financial resources
  • Be in good general health and have no history of:
    • Heart disease
    • Liver disease, including cirrhosis and hepatitis B and C
    • Diabetes
    • HIV
    • Other diseases that could complicate the surgery

As we celebrate April as Donate Life month, take a moment to consider how you could make an impact in someone else's life. If contributing as a living donor isn't possible, please remember that you can easily specify organ donation on your PA driver's license. 

To become a donor you can quickly and easily sign up online or check "yes" for organ and tissue donation when you get or renew your driver's license, learner's permit or photo ID. The words "Organ Donor" will be placed below your photo and in your computer record with the Pa. Department of Transportation. Make sure to share your decision with your loved ones. There is no fee to sign up to be a donor.

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