When a Selfless Act Became a Stimulating Example:
William L. Willard Sr.’s Attempted Living Kidney Donation from His Son

In early October 2005, my son, 1st LT William L. Willard, Jr., USMC, traveled halfway around the world to give me a remarkable gift: a kidney to replace the transplant that was failing after 14 years.

His mother, Sue, my wife of 36 years, had made the same wonderful offer some months earlier, but hypertension had ruled her out as an eligible donor.

At first, I hadn’t wanted Bill even to test for compatibility, but when he was home on leave earlier this year following duty in Iraq he went to the Lifelink Healthcare Institute in Tampa on his own, and learned that we’re a match. Still, I told him I couldn’t accept a kidney from my own son, but he looked in the eye and said: “Dad, I’m an adult. This is something I’m going to do.”

That was that. And that was how we left it until a few weeks ago when my kidney function began deteriorating even further. It was then we arranged for Bill and his wife, Ellin, to fly in from Okinawa, where he’s now stationed. Sue and I met them at Tampa International Airport on 11 October and drove to Lifelink for the additional testing required before the transplant, scheduled for 21 October at Tampa General Hospital, could be performed.

The donor’s operation is done laporoscopically (a minimally invasive procedure), so Bill would be hospitalized for about five days, shortly after which he’d return to his normal duties. Best of all, he wouldn’t have to resign his Marine Corps commission as a result of being a kidney donor. That was one of the things that finally sold me on accepting his offer.

As for me, it would take several days longer to be released, but I, too, would soon be back to normal-assuming, that is, everything went according to plan. A rather large assumption, as it turned out.

The call came from our Lifelink transplant coordinator midday Thursday, 13 October. Irregularities in Bill’s tests had made him, too, ineligible to be a donor.

As disappointed as we were at that news, especially so close to the planned surgery, I knew we are both fortunate in having a diligent evaluation team at Lifelink. I’d read of situations where the desire to go through with an organ donation was so great that the evaluation team cut corners, approving a willing donor, even though everything was not quite right. A few donors have had long-term health problems because they were approved when they should have been turned down.

What’s in store for me now? I’ve been down this road before, and it’s really pretty simple: Dialysis while waiting for another suitable deceased donor–a wait that could be as long as four years, or could end next week if an extraordinarily compatible kidney becomes available.

Yet the bitterly disappointing outcome and emotional roller-coaster ride we were all on does nothing to diminish our pride in Bill for having been willing and anxious to perform such a loving and selfless act. It even exceeds our pride in his prior service as an enlisted Marine, and his having earned a commission following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Semper Fi, son.

But, in truth, I made those points to make this one. So many people are unaware of or indifferent to the need for organ donations, and don’t even sign the permission-to-donate-after-death line on their driver’s licenses, much less tell their families of their wishes.

About three times as many people are waiting for transplants as there are kidneys available. Currently, nearly 90,000 Americans are listed for an organ transplant, more than 3,100 are Floridians. Last year, more than 27,000 people throughout the country received their “gift of life” – sadly, approximately 17 people died daily because the organ they needed did not become available.

It is our hope that the story of someone close to home who must now wait perhaps years for a kidney–and the story of a son’s willingness but inability to donate, might move others to sign their donor cards or driver’s licenses.

To learn more about organ donation, contact Lifelink of Florida at 800 262-5775.

William L. Willard, Sr.
Clearwater. FL