My Story of Kidney Donation in 1988 (Pre-Internet) Era

I’m the youngest of five daughters raised by a wonderful mother.  My oldest sister, Sue, developed diabetes in her early 20’s.  Her diabetes was severe and difficult to control, and she developed early onset of a variety diabetic complications.  Then in the mid-80’s she was told her kidneys were failing and that she would eventually need dialysis or a transplant.

My sister wouldn’t ask any of her sisters for a kidney, so I took on the task of doing the transplant and donor research.  Research in the mid-80’s entailed letter writing and phone calls, and then sorting through and reading large packets of information.  During this time, my sister’s health was worsening.  I pushed even harder through the research, contacted a transplant center (UCSF) and got an initial visit scheduled.

Four of us (sisters) went to the appointment; the screening process quickly determined I was the only possible sibling donor.  My sister and I were accepted into the transplant program, but told that the transplant wouldn’t be performed until her kidney function decreased to a certain level (this was standard protocol in the mid-80’s).  So then it became a waiting game, one we almost lost because my sister had a heart attack.  She then needed heart surgery; the stress of the surgery caused her kidneys to weaken further and fail and then she had to go onto dialysis; her health deteriorated quickly, she had a hard time recovering from the heart surgery while on dialysis.  It was a real struggle for her and I could see her health was not going to improve any further.  I worried that her failing health would make in her ineligible for the transplant or that her health would worsen even further.

And so I did the only thing I knew to do, I hounded her doctors and the transplant clinic to perform transplant as soon as possible.  The clinic was wonderful, they had protocol to follow, but they listened to my concerns and rationale, told me I was the most well-informed kidney donor they had ever met and agreed to quickly proceed with the transplant.  There was still lots to do, I had passed the initial donor screening, but had not been put through the much more extensive medical testing and screening.  So I went to UCSF for 4-5 days worth of donor screening.  And then we got the “DATE” for the transplant and I kept my fingers crossed.

It was touch and go right up to surgery day, my sister’s heart problems were a source of concern to the transplant surgeons (understandably so).  Surgery day came and my sister and I waited on side-by-side gurneys.  They took me first and  just as I was being put under anesthetic, I said to the doctor “Please don’t drop my kidney”.  I woke up from anesthetic to see my wonderful mom; she was so excited all she kept saying to me is “Jennifer, it’s working, your kidney is working!”

I was in the hospital more than a week, my sister for a month.  She came and stayed with me immediately after the hospital and we finished our surgical recovery together – doing the things that sisters do – shopping, visiting, lunching, and having a wonderful time.  We also made our followup visits to the transplant clinic together. My sister felt so much better it was amazing, I couldn’t keep up with her when she got out of the hospital.   It was truly a very special time for both of us and only strengthened our sister-bond, we had always been close, but this brought us even closer.  We had always lived quite a distance apart, but several years after the transplant, she moved very close to me (after what can only be called another wonderful story, she married her old high school boyfriend – her third marriage).   My sister was amazing, always had a great sense of humor, loved life and was always very kind and loving – kids, dogs, cats, turtles, you name it.  She was a vet tech and worked for the SPCA.

The kidney transplant was a complete success, no complications, no rejection issues; the quality of her life significantly improved.  She still had diabetes, and went on to develop CML (a form of leukemia), but she didn’t complain and continued to live life to the fullest.  Sadly, diabetic complications and heart disease caught up with her and she suffered a fatal heart attack about 15 years after the transplant.

I know my sister’s life was better and longer because she received the kidney transplant.   Since a living-donor transplant was an option for her, I wanted her to have that option and a better quality of life, even though I understood, that with her health complications her life expectancy was much shorter than most.    As far as my health goes, I’ve never had any complications or issues as a result of donating a kidney.

Jennifer Long

PS:  I had been through  a couple of surgeries  before the transplant so I knew what to expect, but there’s no denying that it is a fairly painful surgery.  Of course it was 1988; I would imagine that pain management and surgical techniques are better than they were 25 years ago.