Donating a kidney? It’s not as scary as it sounds.
Unitek CEO’s niece shares her story of becoming a donor
Kate Reynolds’ close family friend Ben Schattmaier was in his first year of middle school when his family learned he had a chronic kidney disease. At a time when most kids are worried about fitting in with their peers and picking what sports to play, Ben and his family were faced with a life-altering medical diagnosis.
He was going to need a new kidney, whether it was in the next year or in 10 years—the urgency of a transplant depended on how his condition progressed. Ben became one of over 106,000 people on the national transplant waiting list, 87% of whom are waiting for kidneys.
“When I found out he had been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, I remember saying ‘Oh, I’d give a kidney to him,’” Kate recalls. “I had no idea that would be something I’d eventually be called to do, but I was sincere about it.”
She wasn’t alone in her willingness to help—many of Ben’s family and loved ones immediately registered as potential donors. But for a transplant to be successful, there are an astonishing variety of factors that have to be a just-right match between donor and recipient.
Kate underwent an initial phone screening, then a series of preliminary tests, and eventually flew to a medical center across the country for more in-depth testing and consultations with surgeons and other specialists. As she continued through the process and learned about the critical need for donations, Kate’s commitment only increased, despite uncertainty about whether she’d even be a match for Ben’s physiology.
“You don’t really know how likely you are to be a fit, or how likely you are to be healthy enough, but I just kept going to the next step, and learned more and more—and at some point, it became, ‘I’m either going to give a kidney to him, or to somebody else.’”
Kate’s background in public health also made her more aware than most of the consequences Ben—or any other chronic kidney disease patient—could face without a timely transplant. Many people spend 5+ years on the transplant waiting list, often with worsening health in the meantime.
As she explains, “The other option instead of receiving a kidney transplant is dialysis, which is a really unpleasant medical procedure that truly affects quality of life. It’s really pretty horrible.”
As it turned out, Kate’s blood type, age, lab levels, and overall excellent health made her an ideal candidate to become Ben’s donor. And with the opportunity to change a loved one’s life for the better, she knew she had to go forward with it. “Learning that I’m healthy enough to do this is an incredible privilege,” she says. “It seems like the least I could do in this situation.”
After completing all her physical tests, Kate was officially approved by a panel of specialists to become Ben’s donor after about a 10-month process. During that time, Ben’s health declined, but then stabilized to the point his transplant surgery could be temporarily delayed.
All that remains now is to schedule the surgery. And with major milestones like high school graduation on the horizon for Ben, his family and doctors are discussing the best timing for the operation to balance his medical needs with his quality of life.
As Kate awaits the final word on when the operation is happening, she remains cheery and confident about an experience that would make many people nervous. “They’ve done a lot of research about the long-term health of donors, and there’s no reason to be concerned that my long-term health will be affected in any way,” she says. “The surgeon told me after 3 weeks, I’ll be pretty much back to normal. ”
While looking back on her experience to this point, Kate reflects on the knowledge and support she received from her many healthcare providers. “Everyone at [the hospital], especially the phlebotomists, radiology technicians, and nurses, were incredible and supportive. When I was anxious that I wouldn’t be approved, the phlebotomist said to me ‘This is going to work out exactly the way it is supposed to,’ which was exactly what I needed to hear.”
Throughout the process, Kate’s relationship with Ben and his family became closer than ever. “Mostly I’ve been joking with him about it,” she says, “because it kind of alleviates the heaviness of the situation. We spent Thanksgiving together, and while playing cards, there were jokes about ‘I’m not giving you this card, I’m already giving you a kidney!’ Everyone got a kick out of it.”
While Kate recognizes that donating a kidney is a huge decision, she hopes more people will learn about the vital need for donors. “A lot of people think about organ donation upon death, but there are lots of living donation options.”
“Just learn about it,” she continues. “I would never say ‘Everybody should go out and do this.’ But learning about the option and assessing whether you’re a good fit…By going through this process and talking about it, my goal is to influence one person to donate.”
As the transplant wait list gets longer every year, donors like Kate will be critical for treating kidney disease patients with the life-saving surgeries they need. Throughout the process of becoming a donor, she’s grown closer to her loved ones, learned more about her own health, and above all, gained a renewed sense of gratitude.
“Knowing that I’m healthy enough to be in a position to do this—and to have it affect my life in minimal ways—I feel honored to have the opportunity.”
Visit the American Kidney Fund to learn more about how you can help fight kidney disease.
Learn more about Kate