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Donate Life Month 2019: Living donors helping those in need

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By Kacie Goode

Most people have the opportunity to save a life. For some, it only takes a decal on their driver’s license. For others, it’s a matter of undergoing various tests, medical procedures and surgery, but it’s a “superpower” a large portion of the population possesses and one that has saved people right here in Nelson County. This is the third in a series of articles highlighting how local residents have been affected by organ donation or how they play a part in raising awareness.

Sonia Beard didn’t lose her kidney, she just found someone more in need of it. The Bardstown resident recently donated the organ to another local woman in December, and it’s a live-saving decision she wouldn’t change.

Sonia learned of the need through a Facebook post.

“It was actually around this time last year, and it had the little slogan of ‘Share your Spare,’” she recalled.

The post linked to the website of a campaign to find living kidney donors for two siblings in the area — Angela Corbett and Myra Coomer. The two were part of a large family in which five out of the nine siblings were affected by hereditary polycystic kidney disease. The unaffected siblings who were able to donate did so, but Angela and Myra were still in desperate need of donors.

Moved by the story, Sonia decided to be tested to see if she could help. She came back as a partial match for Angela, which wasn’t enough to move forward with transplant, but additional blood tests revealed a direct match for Myra.

“It started about a 9-10 month process for me,” Sonia said of working with doctors. “There’s basically nothing they don’t know about you inside and out, mentally and physically.”

In addition to medical testing and scans to prepare for transplant and confirm the kidney’s compatibility, Sonia also had to speak with a psychologist and social worker to make sure she was fully on board with the decision to donate and understood the risks. At any point she could change her mind, she was told, but Sonia knew she would donate as long as she was able.

Along the way, Sonia not only had the chance to meet with Myra before the transplant, but with several other family members as well, which is something a lot of donors and recipients never have the chance to do. When it came time for the actual procedure, which was performed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, it was a mix of emotions for everyone involved.

The surgery took a couple of hours, but was successful and without complications. Sonia did have a minor setback after the transplant, with a bowel blockage, but today she is healed and doing well. She is also happy to share that, while she was not a match for Angela, the sibling was able to receive her own transplant in October and both are living healthier lives.

While Sonia has already donated her kidney, she is not alone in her interest of living donation. Fellow Nelson County resident Carol Hill is still undergoing testing to see if she will be a match to donate to her brother-in-law, Ronnie. Ronnie began having issues with his kidney function a few years ago, she said, and in the last year was placed on the transplant waiting list. Carol and Ronnie have grown close over the years, so when she heard he was in need of a transplant, she wanted to do her part to help.

“I am an only child, and he feels like more of a brother to me than a brother-in-law,” she said.

Carol is still in the early stages of testing, which began with completing medical history papers. Since she is on blood pressure medication, she also has to monitor her blood pressure and send back reports to doctors. If she is cleared, then she can move on to the next step of testing, which would be to monitor her urine output for 24 hours.

“That’s all I know so far,” Carol said of the procedures, but she is hopeful everything will work out to get Ronnie the kidney he needs, whether it is her kidney or another donor’s.

In pursuing living donation, the local women represent a very important part of the organ donation community. While many organ transplants are performed between a deceased donor and living recipient, some organs such as kidneys can be transplanted from living donors, which can reduce the wait time for patients in need. In fact, living donation was developed in response to a shortage of deceased donors.

Kidneys are the most transplanted — and most needed — organ in the United States, making up more than half of all transplants performed. More than 21,000 kidneys were transplanted last year alone, and at the state level, 779 of the 1,052 candidates currently on a transplant waiting list need a kidney.

Because of this need, the decision to pursue living donation is a crucial one, but dedication from donors may actually be on the rise. Already in 2019, about a dozen living donors have been confirmed in Kentucky, and in the next eight months, it will be interesting to see if that number rises to exceed last year’s total living donors of 81 in the state — a number that has almost doubled since 2014, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

One of the concerns some have about living donation is the cost, but Sonia said her medical expenses for the evaluation and surgery were covered by Myra’s insurance, and the hospital had programs for living donors to assist with travel expenses.

“You’re not paid money to do it, but it helps cover your expenses” while you are preparing for transplant, she said. In her particular case with the help of insurance and donor programs, there was really no out-of-pocket cost for donating.

“I think maybe if more people knew that, they would be more inclined to give.”

Sonia remains humbled by the experience of being a living donor, but she also understands the importance of raising awareness of the need.

“I just think that, if it’s something you’re able to do, it doesn’t hurt to get tested and put it out there and see if you could possibly be a match for somebody,” she said.

Becoming a living organ donor

To be a living donor is different from being a registered organ donor. Someone who wants to donate while still alive must contact a transplant center directly to discuss and begin the process. Those interested in becoming a living donor should be in good overall physical and mental condition, over the age of 18, and should do their research on the risks involved in donating. The decision to be a living donor is completely voluntary.

There are three types of living donation — directed, non-directed and paired. A directed donation, the most common type, is done when a donor specifically names the person to whom they are donating. Many direct donors are biologically related to the recipient, but not all.

Non-directed donation is usually done between strangers when a donor happens to be a medical match for a recipient in need.

Paired donation has been referred to as a “kidney exchange.” This donation is done when at least two donors and transplant candidates, who may not be compatible on their own, “trade” donors so that each candidate receives a kidney from a compatible blood type.

For more information on living donation and how to start the process, visit donatelife.net.  

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