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DONATE LIFE: Kidney connections, Pt. 1

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By Kacie Goode

April is national organ donation month. This is the first in a multi-part look at how organ failure and donations affect those from Nelson County.

Next week, Tammi Whitney will travel to Louisville for a very important, life-saving surgery. But it’s not her life she’s saving, it’s Mitzi Lynch’s.

Tammi was already aware of Mitzi’s diabetes, but when her friend’s kidneys failed and she was placed on a transplant waiting list, she wanted to do something — something big — so she decided to get tested to see if she was a match as an organ donor.

“I couldn’t not help her,” Tammi said of her decision to donate.

Tammi wasn’t a blood relative and was the very first person tested for Mitzi, but despite the odds against her, she came back a perfect match.

“It was exciting, but I was not surprised,” she said, adding that she knew in her heart they would be compatible.

Mitzi has been on dialysis since September 2015, after going into kidney failure, and has a few more appointments coming up. But thanks to Tammi, all of that could soon be behind her.

“She’s an angel with skin on,” Mitzi said of her friend.

But the donation hasn’t come without sacrifice.

Tammi started the testing process in December, which included a lot of lab work, X-rays, scans and more, looking for compatibility, disease or potential complications.

“They actually test your blood type three times,” Tammi said. As a nurse, that process was something she found interesting.

She has also had to meet with the surgeon, a living donor advocate, a social worker, a psychiatrist, pharmacist, a nephrologist and a dietician as part of the process to be sure she was both physically and emotionally ready to donate.

Last month, she was finally approved as a donor, but with some conditions. Because a small kidney stone was found in her left kidney — the one to be donated — she had to alter her diet to prevent the production of more stones. 

“Tammi’s done it all,” Mitzi said. “I’m the winner here, but she’s the one that’s done all the work.”

The connection between Tammi and Mitzi began with a common religious interest 10 years ago, when the two attended an Emmaus retreat in Elizabethtown.

“It’s a Christian-based spiritual time we all spend together,” Mitzi said.

And the two have stayed connected ever since.

“It’s my belief that all of this was planned,” Tammi said. “I would meet her, and God would sustain this friendship over the past 10 years, knowing all this would happen. It’s just amazing.”

Though Tammi has had to make some adjustments in her life to prepare for the surgery, her family and community have been supportive.

“We’ve prayed about it from the beginning,” she said.

Tammi also reached out to a friend who had been a living donor, and sought advice on what to expect. Fatigue for several months, she was told, could be an effect of the surgery.

“But she didn’t regret it,” Tammi said, adding that the friend had donated to a stranger.

As for the cost, Mitzi’s insurance will help cover medical expenses for both surgeries, recovery and follow-up.

“Even being a nurse, until all of this I had never really considered living organ donation,” Tammi said. Even in school and through work, it wasn’t talked about much. But she hopes to see that awareness change.

When Tammi saw a friend in need, she stepped up without hesitation to give an extraordinary gift. And while being a living donor is a title many may be hesitant to adopt, there are other ways to help people like Mitzi.

“I think if you are able to donate, please sign your license. Please be a donor,” Mitzi said. “Whether it’s a kidney, a heart, your eyes, there is nothing more precious than someone giving you life again.”

Check back for part two of this look at organ donation as it relates to kidneys. The Kentucky Standard would also like to explore other types of transplants and organ needs. If you have donated an organ, received an organ or are in need of a transplant and would like to be part of a future series, email kgoode@kystandard.com.

The importance of living donors
• Living donors contributed to nearly 6,000 transplants in 2015.
• Living donors can save not only the organ recipient, but also the next person on the deceased organ wait list.
• Kidney and liver are an example of organs that can be taken from a living donor. Kidneys account for 82 percent of patients currently waiting for a transplant. Livers account for 13 percent.
• One in four living donors are not blood relatives of the recipient.
• While organ donors can indicate their registration on a driver’s license, living donors are not included in this registration. The choice to be a living donor must be discussed with a transplant center.
• Organs from a living donor can potentially last longer than those from a deceased donor.
• There are different types of living organ donation. Living donors can specifically name the person they wish to donate to or become a donor for a stranger in need. Living donors can also be part of a “chain,” meaning they can choose to donate to a different recipient if they are incompatible with the intended recipient. A chain of donations then connects each donor and recipient so that each person in need receives an organ.
Find more information on living organ donation at donatelife.net.