Giving the Gift of Life

by Jamie Harwood
Peoria County

In early 2011, I was visiting a friend in the ICU at UnityPoint Health – Methodist and was met by her physician telling her, “You need a kidney transplant.” From childhood, my friend was a brittle diabetic and had spent much of her life battling the disease. Over the years, the stress and demand wreaked havoc on her body—and specifically, her kidneys. They were shot. 

For several months, dialysis was her only option for daily survival, and this required three trips a week to the dialysis center for hours of treatment. It’s a tough journey, to say the least. More than 661,000 Americans have kidney failure, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Of these individuals, 468,000 are on dialysis, and roughly 193,000 live with a functioning kidney transplant. Each year, more people die from kidney disease than breast cancer and colon cancer combined. 

As a registered nurse, I knew my dear friend was desperate to regain her health, but moreover, she was desperate to live. There in the ICU that day, I offered my kidney. She politely declined my offer, but that didn’t stop me from starting the testing process.

The first step was blood-type testing, and the blood types must match perfectly. Ours did. The next step is tissue-type testing. Each person has six basic tissue typing antigens (or markers) shared equally from their parents. The markers help dictate which donor will be the best match between the recipient and donor. A parent and child would have at least a 50-percent match, while siblings could have a zero to 100-percent match.

According to the Living Kidney Donors Network, the best outcome for the recipient is to have six out of six antigens match; however, it is not necessary that you match your antigens for a successful transplant. Matching just one antigen may make for a more successful transplant than matching five or six antigens from a deceased donor’s kidney. My friend and I matched six out of six antigens. It was a miracle. 

On March 8, 2012, with my family by my side in Iowa City, donation day was upon us. The consents were all signed, and with little to no reluctance, it was time to give the gift of life to another. The normally four-to-six-hour procedure lasted eight hours. There were no complications, and we were both doing well post-operatively. Everything was a success, and my friend continues to thrive today. 

According to the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network, there are more than 114,000 people across the United States who are waiting for a heart, liver, kidney, lung, pancreas or small bowel transplant, including more than 4,000 in Illinois alone. Of those 4,000 people in Illinois waiting for an organ transplant, 3,300 are in need of a kidney. 

Organ and tissue donation is not for everyone, and the decision to become a registered donor is a personal one. The Organ/Tissue Donor Registry is a confidential, electronic database that documents a person's wishes regarding donation when they pass away. Information contained in the registry is only released to organ and tissue procurement personnel and coroners after all efforts to save a person's life have failed. First-person consent makes your decision to be an organ/tissue donor legally binding. Additional witnesses or family consent is no longer required; your wishes will be honored. 

You may join the First-Person Consent Organ/Tissue Donor Registry by visiting your nearest Secretary of State facility and registering in person. One donor can enhance or save up to 25 lives, but remember: the choice to donate is a personal one that should be shared with your family. iBi

Jamie Harwood is Peoria County Coroner and a registered nurse with 20 years of nursing experience.

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