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My Kidney Donor Story

In 2020 I donated a kidney to my good friend Susan Shaw.  While I was initially reluctant to talk about it for fear of being perceived as a "humble bragger", I later realized that was short-sighted. The more people that know how routine and safe kidney donation is following the necessary screening, the more potential donors will raise their hand and save a life. Learn more about kidney donation at www.kidney.org.

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Why should you consider living kidney donation?  

For every person who received a living kidney transplant in 2023 16 people remained on the waiting list. Every day, 14 people die waiting. Unfortunately, the statistics about how safe the procedure is for the  donor, and how kidney donors in fact have a higher life expectancy than the general population, aren’t  widely known and promoted. The kidneys are a “redundant system”. We only need one. How fortunate  we all are to have a priceless gift to give, just waiting for the right person at the right time. 

Our kidney story

I gave “lefty” to my friend Susan in 2020. I’ve never regretted it for a second.  This is our story, and we hope it helps you or a loved one contemplating donation or seeking a kidney  transplant. Susan and I met in 2005 when our kids were in kindergarten together. Our sons quickly became close friends. At school events, soccer games, track meets, and countless class birthday parties, I always gravitated to Susan because of her hilarious sense of humor often rooted in parental exasperation (she has twins, and an older son) and filled with spot-on commentary about the world in general.  

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Our sons quickly became best friends

As our kids grew up and spent more and more time together, my wife and I felt a strong connection to Susan beyond a typical friendship. She was a hard-working single parent raising three wonderful kids, despite her own health problems. She was generous, warm, and yes, always very funny. On Halloween in 2019 Susan texted that she was trick or treating with her nieces nearby. I was only a few blocks away and caught up with her. I noticed that she’d lost weight since I’d last seen her. She was going through kidney failure and was on dialysis. As we talked  more, she mentioned that she was on the wait list for a kidney transplant. No one in her family, church, or social network was eligible. I told her I’d be happy to learn about  the donor process and asked her to send me information. A couple days passed and she hadn’t sent the details so I reached back out. Susan didn’t want me to feel any pressure and wanted to make sure it was something I truly  felt comfortable even considering. She sent a link to the initial online questionnaire. As I filled it out, I just knew that I was going to be a match and that everything was going to be OK. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more confident about a decision. 

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After I completed the initial screening, and after many  discussions with my understandably worried wife, I went  through a number of physical and psychological screenings at Saint Barnabas in Livingston, NJ. One of these sessions involved my wife and I talking with a social worker to make sure collectively, we were both ready for the experience. During each step of the way everyone at Saint Barnabas was amazingly kind and helpful. There was never even the slightest amount of pressure. If anything, they went out of their way to make  sure this was a decision I was making carefully. 

With all the tests completed over the following winter, I was cleared to be a donor. Although our  blood types were compatible, they weren’t identical. So, the last step involved mixing Susan’s blood with mine to see if our antibodies “got along”. Once again, I was certain it was going to work out. It did. Our surgery was scheduled for the following March. Due to COVID restrictions it was put on hold, and eventually rescheduled for a Wednesday in late August. On the morning of the surgery, my wife and I were allowed to briefly see Susan in the pre-op area before we both went to our separate operating  rooms.

As I was wheeled into the operating room and the anesthesiologist prepared to put me under, I felt a little nervous but more ready than ever. The next thing I knew, I was in the recovery room as if no time had passed. My surgery was much faster than Susan’s, and the hardest part of the first day was waiting for news back in my room about how she was doing. Late that afternoon they told me Susan was doing great and recovering across the hall. The next day, we were both up on our feet and were able to see each other. I had my 20+ year old lucky Red Sox hat on, and Susan was wearing a purple head cover—her signature color. 

 

I stayed in the hospital that Wednesday and Thursday night and was home by Friday afternoon. Susan had a longer and much more complex recovery and was in the hospital closer to a week. 

My recovery was very smooth and consistent with everything Saint Barnabas prepared me for. The incision just above the front left side of my waistline was a little tender for a few days, and the tissue beneath it was sore too. But, with mostly just Tylenol, I was comfortable recovering at home. It was hard  and slow getting in and out of bed for a few days, but within the first week I was regularly up and  walking. I was back at work in less than two weeks. 

This process had the unintended benefit of making me much more focused on my own health. The  only advice the doctor gave me before I was discharged was to “live a healthy life.” Once an avid runner since I was a kid (Susan and I like to joke that she can now say she ran in two NYC marathons, since her  kidney did), I’d been neglecting my own health of late, caught up with work, family, and all the same  distractions most of us have that compete with taking time for exercise. After I recovered from surgery I ate more thoughtfully and exercised more regularly. I took classes and got a certificate from Cornell in Health and  Nutrition. I thank Susan for what she did for my health. 

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Susan and I up and walking the day after surgery

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Celebrating our first kidney-versary in 2021

I have absolutely no restrictions on my activity other than no “hard contact” sports purely out of an abundance of caution. I have no dietary restrictions. I take no medications. My blood tests continue to show that “righty” is functioning beautifully. Although Susan will take medication for the rest of her life to make sure “lefty” continues to be healthy and in synch with her body, she’s no longer on dialysis and is doing well too. Although we see each other regularly, we always make sure we get together with our significant others on our “kidney-versary” to celebrate life and friendship.

 

The personal choice to be a kidney donor is certainly not something to take  lightly. Understanding if you have a family history of kidney disease, consulting  with your loved ones, and doing your own very personal risk assessment are all  critical. Having said that, for the majority of people eligible to donate, the risk  and reward calculation is clear. With only short-term and relatively small impact  to your life as the donor, and negligible long-term risk, you can extend the recipient’s life by decades and free them from the constraints of dialysis.

 

If you’re contemplating becoming a kidney donor and would like someone to talk with who has gone  through it, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at ben@bhwalker.com.  

 

I also highly recommend www.kidney.org for a wealth of useful information for both donors and  recipients. Click on the image below to find out everything you need to know.  

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