BANGOR, Maine — Four women who have donated kidneys, a woman in need of a kidney and an organ transplant surgeon shared their stories Friday in the hope of taking the mystery and fear out of kidney donations.
The idea was to get people to consider donating a kidney of their own, if their health permits, or to become a registered organ donor. Among those who turned out for the talk was a Maine hospice worker who stepped forward and offered to help one of the speakers who was in need of a kidney.
Kristen Bagley, a Veazie school board member who works at Beacon Hospice in Bangor, gave her contact information to Michelle Holmes Abell of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and said she would undergo testing to see if they are a match.
Bagley, who arrived a little late to Friday’s “Save a Life Lunch and Learn” at the Sea Dog Brewing Co. and stood at the back of the room during the panel discussion, later said she often finds herself helping people finish their life journey but would like the chance to help someone continue their journey.
She said she was drawn to Friday’s talk because her father received a kidney donation in 1999 and went on to live nine more years.
“I got that time with him,” Bagley said. “He had refused dialysis, so it was really a gift.”
Neither Bagley nor her brother were matches for their father, so they weren’t able to donate. Being able to give one of her kidneys to Abell would be a way of paying it forward. Abell has been on a transplant waiting list for the past few years.
Bagley said she also liked the idea that Abell is a kindergarten teacher and that helping her live longer could have a ripple effect on her future students.
Abell said during the panel discussion that while she is not yet sick enough to go on dialysis, she is experiencing extreme fatigue.
“I go home [after work] and I do nothing,” she said.
Abell has been searching for a potential donor and has had some success through Facebook, but a match has remained elusive so far.
Pettegrow and fellow kidney donors Jennifer Geel of East Machias, Amber McIntyre of Kenduskeag and Coralie Holmes Duttweiler of Hodgdon described what it was like to donate a kidney.
Most of the women donated to a family member or friends.
The exception was McIntyre, who donated one of her kidneys to a complete stranger she learned about on Facebook.
The donors said that the process begins with tests to determine if they are a physical match with the person. If there is a match, the potential donor undergoes rigorous psychological testing to make sure he or she is up to the procedure.
The medical costs for the donors are covered by the recipient’s insurance, and donors can change their minds at any point in the process — right up until the moment before they are about to undergo anesthesia.
All four donors said that, despite some post-surgery discomforts, they recovered within weeks of the procedure and would donate again, if they could.
“I feel just as good today [as before donating a kidney]. You wouldn’t even know the difference, and you’ve saved someone’s life,” Pettegrow said.
It was the same for Geel, who was back to work four weeks after donating a kidney.
“I’ve never felt any different” since then, she said.
Duttweiler donated a kidney to one of her brothers, Paul Holmes of Machiasport. He has two kidney transplants from family members. Duttweiler also is Abell’s sister.
“It’s emotionally hard that I don’t have another one to give [Abell],” Duttweiler said.
McIntyre said she decided to look into donating a kidney to a stranger after seeing her recipient’s plea on Facebook and was moved by the number of people who wanted to donate but were not a suitable match.
Dr. Juan Palma-Vargas, a surgeon with the Maine Transplant Program, said that in the past, most live kidney donations involved cadavers or occurred between family members.
Over the past decade, however, a growing number of people are stepping forward as live donors.
“It doesn’t get any more selfless or altruistic than this,” he said, later adding, “We used to believe that donors like Amber were crazy.”
The surgeon said there are three ways that people can help the cause.
First, people should stay as healthy as they can so they can avoid the need for a transplant when possible or be in the proper physical condition should they decide to become donors.
If they do want to donate organs, they should make their intentions clear to their families.
And finally, those who want to donate should formally register with Donate Life America at donatelife.net.