When Karen Keim of Veazie learned that her colleague Darylen Cote of Caribou needed a kidney, she knew she could be the donor.
Keim, 53, is associate director of the TRIO Educational Opportunity Centers and TRIO Talent Search at the University of Maine in Orono. Cote, 63, directs the TRIO College Access Services at the University of Maine in Presque Isle. The two educators have known each other professionally for 10 years, but on Jan. 14, 2014, their relationship gained a new dimension.
“Kidney disease comes on slowly; it creeps up on you,” Cote said, describing how she attributed increasing tiredness to overwork. “Everybody’s tired. I’m working hard. Of course I’m tired,” she recalled thinking. “I just didn’t connect the dots.”
Once her exhaustion was linked to kidney disease, more than a half dozen people stepped forward for testing to be donors, including Cote’s brother, sister, daughter, son, cousin, sister-in-law and three colleagues.
“Every single one had a medical issue, from high blood pressure to prescribed medications,” she said of the candidates who were disqualified.
Even Keim was eliminated initially, but she requested a review of the test results. It was determined she was indeed a match.
“I knew at some time I’d make a donation. It needed to be the right time,” she said, explaining she had wanted to donate a kidney to save her brother 13 years ago. He was too ill to undergo the surgery and died in 2001 at age 48. Keim’s donation to Cote is a tribute to her brother.
Preparation for the transplant involved many trips to the Maine Transplant Center at the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where both women were tested, counseled, informed and supported throughout the process by caring, competent staff.
“You don’t do it on a whim,” Keim said, confirming she was ready to help Cote because she had made the commitment for her brother. “They only take the healthiest people, and there is absolutely no cost to the donor.”
Both women said the match was meant to be. “She’s very intuitive,” Cote said of Keim. “She was consistent in feeling she would be a match.”
Yet Keim feels uncomfortable when people praise her generosity.
“People don’t understand I got so much out of it — the opportunity to help and to honor my brother — it’s very rewarding.”
The other reward was seeing an immediate physical change in her friend. After her three-hour surgery, Cote looked different — her color was better, she was not lethargic, the weight gained from fluid accumulation was gone.
And the kidney was working.
“Imagine celebrating peeing,” Keim said. “We joked that it was overachieving.”
Cote now has three kidneys, but the only one that works is nestled in above her right hip.
Keim explained that the laparoscopic surgery left her with a four-inch incision so small and easily hidden, “I could be a bikini model.”
Comparing their expectations of the operation to the experience, both women said they were surprised by how quickly they felt better.
“The surgery was Tuesday. I came home Thursday and by Monday I wondered why I was not at work,” said Keim. “I felt great and was taking no pain medications.”
Cote echoed those thoughts.
“I don’t think I realized how tired I was,” she said, describing the side effects of medications as minor compared to the joy of regaining strength.
“I feel so fortunate that Karen was ready, and I did not have to be on dialysis,” she said. “People with certain blood types wait for years. People die every day waiting for an organ.”
On Jan. 29, Cote and Keim were surprised to discover they were scheduled for an appointment at the Transplant Center at the same time. They did not know that the appointment was in fact a ceremony.
Donor Coordinator Roxanne Taylor presented them with “Gift of Life” T-shirts and special pins for donor and recipient that fit together to read: “I gave the Gift of Life” and “I received the Gift of Life.”
Darylen has worn her pin several times. Karen wore hers for the first time March 8 when she sang in the choir at the memorial service for a friend who died after a March 2 automobile accident.
Because that friend was an organ donor, two people are off dialysis and living freer lives. And because that friend was also my friend, this column is dedicated to Ruth Souweine, whose parting gift was the gift of life.
For more information about organ donation, contact the Maine Transplant Center at the Maine Medical Center in Portland. March is National Kidney Month, and March 13 was World Kidney Day. The National Kidney Foundation urges Americans to learn the key risk factors for kidney disease. For more information, visit www.kidney.org
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.