HUFFPOST PERSONAL

How I Ended Up Donating A Kidney To A Total Stranger

The email arrived in the early spring of last year and was sent to an internal mailing list at the animal rescue organization where I work. It wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, and I could have easily ignored it entirely. But I didn’t. And reading its contents would change my life for the months to come.

In the email, a coworker told the story of a relative with kidney disease whose potential donor transplant had just fallen through after months’ worth of procedures and tests. The relative was 34, my age exactly — a detail so banal and striking at the same time that made me pause immediately. I ran a quick search query for “kidney disease,” and the results were awful: chronic nausea and vomiting, fatigue and weakness, swelling of the feet, sleep problems… at such a young age?

I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to live with a diagnosis like that. During my average week, I’d attend several yoga classes, go rock climbing, train a horse, and ride my bike almost daily. Exercise and physical activities help me feel grounded, at ease and connected to my friends. What would it feel like to have all that taken away?

Without a transplant, I learned, kidney disease will continue to progress, inevitably leading to dialysis — requiring exhausting, hours-long hospital visits multiple times a week to filter the blood, without ever curing the disease itself. Further reading revealed that a living donor transplant is a patient’s best shot at regaining their health and quality of life.

The relative was 34, my age exactly — a detail so banal and striking at the same time that made me pause immediately.

The email linked to a transplant center’s online questionnaire and encouraged anyone who might be so moved to complete the survey. For quite some time, I read the included informational PDF brochure for prospective donors, which detailed each step of the procedure, as well as the intense testing and diagnostics that would lead up to the surgery itself (referred to as nephrectomy). 

I learned that the surgery would disrupt my daily life for at least six weeks; the incisions themselves would be relatively small, but the recovery would be slow, and required a six-to-eight week medical leave. The procedure was supposedly very safe, but what if something went wrong? Did I really want to take that risk? For a stranger whom I’ve never met? And what would my husband and family think about this idea?

I took several hours to decide how to proceed. 

We’re rarely offered the opportunity to so drastically affect another’s life in a profoundly positive way. To give the gift of health, and to allow someone to regain a semblance of normalcy. Return to work. Maybe start a family, or be afforded the choice not to. In short, to participate in the experience of being human without an oppressive shadow over one’s head, the specter of what’s sure to come — and come very soon — draining the color and vitality from every experience and action. 

That evening, I followed the link and answered all questions to the best of my knowledge. Then I clicked the big button at the end.

We’re rarely offered the opportunity to so drastically affect another’s life in a profoundly positive way. To give the gift of health, and to allow someone to regain a semblance of normalcy.

The call came the next day, so much sooner than I expected. The San Francisco transplant center had received my survey submission and I hadn’t checked any of the obvious red flags, so they were going to schedule some lab tests for me.

The handful of friends and family members who knew what I was up to were mostly supportive but deeply concerned about my safety and long-term health. I had amassed a wealth of knowledge through reading the transplant center’s literature. And while kidney donations always involve risks, my good health meant the prospect of long-term peril was low.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, and then months, there followed many more procedures and tests (a chest X-ray, an EKG, a CT scan with IV-injected contrast dye that makes you feel like you’re definitely peeing your pants) and plenty of assorted appointments with medical professionals. 

I was also scheduled to talk to what seemed like a never-ending litany of nephrologists, surgeons, social workers, donor advocates, case managers, transplant coordinators, lab technicians and psychologists. It was during these appointments that someone would usually ask how I was related to the recipient, or how I knew him.

The answer, of course, was that I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t know anything about him besides his name and age. This seemed to come as a surprise to many of the professionals and medical nurses I talked to. I still struggled to put into words exactly why I had decided to volunteer, and in lieu of an elevator pitch I tried to explain how this seemed like a way to make an actual, tangible difference, however small.

Having worked for various nonprofit organizations over the past decade, it’s easy to feel discouraged and overwhelmed by the magnitude of suffering in the world. Over time, I learned it’s best to focus on the things we can do. “So, it’s basically something you’re feeling called to do?” asked the assistant who took my vitals once more. I nodded. 

I occasionally wondered if I was perhaps secretly hoping I would be disqualified for health reasons, or maybe wasn’t going to be a match after all and be 'off the hook' and simply bask in the warm glow of my noble intentions.

During this time, I occasionally wondered if I was perhaps secretly hoping I would be disqualified for health reasons, or maybe wasn’t going to be a match after all and be “off the hook” and simply bask in the warm glow of my noble intentions. Wouldn’t that have been the best of both worlds? To know what a good person one was without ever actually having to have one’s abdomen cut open? I don’t know why I’d harbored these suspicions about myself, as though for some reason even to myself I might seem like a fraud after all. 

About 15 weeks after starting the whole process, I received that phone call — the one confirming that I was indeed a perfect match. I felt intense relief — relief that all these months had led to something and that I would be afforded the chance to follow through.

I picked a date for the surgery on that same day. Due to a work commitment in early fall, I decided to wait until October. My employer had been incredibly supportive once learning of my plans, and I wanted to make sure my responsibilities were taken care of. That’s the slightly disconcerting thing about being the donor — a whole medical circus, not to mention the lives of another family — bend to your schedule.

The recipient’s family reached out and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting a few days before the surgery. I wasn’t so sure — I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to thank me, and I also quite frankly preferred not to think too much about the upcoming procedure. It made me nervous and highly anxious, now that its date was rapidly approaching. But I also know from personal experience that sometimes we are indebted to others, and when we do feel that way, the weight of our gratitude can be suffocating if we aren’t given the opportunity to place it somewhere meaningful. So I agreed. 

Turns out the recipient and his wife were perfectly lovely people (a little reserved and worried about the upcoming surgery, respectively) and in retrospect I wonder if the whole thing was so much more unnerving to them, considering how much higher their stakes were in this process. To know that after all this, I could still change my mind at any given moment, which would mean losing their hope for a better life all over again. At the end, we hugged and took a picture together. One of my organs would soon be in the man’s body. 

The recipient’s family reached out and wanted to know if I was interested in meeting a few days before the surgery. I wasn’t so sure — I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to thank me.

When I awoke well before my alarm rang on the day of the surgery, I was afraid. It didn’t come out of nowhere — low-level anxiety had been my steady companion for the prior few weeks, but it predictably intensified and morphed into outright capital-F Fear when the date of the surgery approached.

But I also made it a habit to remind myself just how committed I had been to getting to this point throughout all these months. I hadn’t changed my mind then and I was not going to do so this morning, just because the more reptilian parts of my brain told me to run far, far away (or less dramatically, cancel my ride-share request to the hospital).

Kidney Transplant Wednesday was just another routine day of work for the medical personnel, but to me, just as expected, it turned out to be quite frightening. Regardless, the kindness and care the nurses showed me was deeply touching. 

During a quiet moment, I sat on the hospital bed in my waiting area and cried behind the curtain while my husband held me. I was so afraid and overwhelmed, just sitting there and waiting for the next thing to happen. One of the nurses heard me and checked in, reassuring me patiently that it wouldn’t be much longer. I tried to focus on my breath, just like I had countless times during many meditation sessions, but calm and relaxation remained elusive.

And then it was time. I walked myself into the operating theater, the sheer fact of which is such a surreal experience. The room was white and chrome, all lights and sparkle. A low buzz of activity everywhere, surgical instruments laid out. The hum of machines. The glare of spotlights. Too bright to see. 

When consciousness crept back after the operation, my thoughts were dim. I opened my eyes and though I didn’t recall falling asleep (no counting back, no heads-up at all), I did remember instantly where I was and why I was there, and I knew why my entire torso was not in pain exactly, but something quite close to it: a relentless tug even in perfect stillness. 

On the first post-op day, I was barely able to think clearly or form coherent sentences, but I was glad that it was over now and I had really gone through with this. I’d been very upfront about my visitor policy at the hospital: don’t. I knew I was going to be upset and in pain; there would time to share stories and talk about the experience during the weeks afterward. But I was incredibly glad to see my husband by my side every single time I was awake enough to open my eyes. 

On the third day, the transplant surgeon arrived with excellent news: Both of my kidneys were working really well at the moment — on different floors of this hospital.

I wanted to take the short trip upstairs as soon as possible. The recipient let me know it was OK to visit. He was still having a fairly rough time with the recovery, but even though the visit was brief I was very grateful for it. In a way, things had shifted for me: I did suddenly feel like I had a personal stake in the long-term success of the transplant, after all that we had gone through leading up to the surgery, each in our own way. It’s not that I didn’t care about the outcome before — it’s just that if seeing a real live person with one of your organs inside them doesn’t make you root for them on a fundamental level, I don’t know what will. 

My supportive care consisted of IV fluids and some medications that were supposed to address the nausea and constipation from the pain meds, but had very little noticeable effect. Once I was able to concentrate, I started to read the piles of get-well cards from friends and coworkers, from folks I’m connected to on social media and from people I’ve never heard of ― the recipient’s friends and family. I read them all in full, and then kept re-reading them. For each moment I wondered if it was worth it, there were infinitely more moments of joy and gratitude and appreciation. Reading the kind messages I received at a time when I felt exhausted and overwhelmed and vulnerable was a kind of healing in itself. 

Slowly I started to feel like myself, and I even biked to my two-week follow-up appointment. No, they didn’t think it was funny. The visit was quick, and the transplant coordinator ceremoniously handed me a “kidney donor” keychain in the shape of a star, a gesture that seemed simultaneously touching and a little funny: I gave my kidney and all I got was this lousy keychain? I thanked the transplant team and promised to return to the lab for a few more rounds of testing in a few months, as part of their long term follow-up procedures. Then I biked home.

I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to donate a kidney, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing when someone reached out for help.

Nine months later, this episode of my life already feels like the distant past. My scars are still fairly noticeable ― pinkish marks across my torso. Due to their strategic placement, they are almost always completely hidden, and I don’t mind them at all. Besides that, no physical effects remain. 

My six-month post-surgery lab work was well within normal range, and my day-to-day life feels no different than before. I have long since returned to my usual exercise regimen, and I chuckle whenever yoga instructors ask me to “puff up my kidneys,” which never quite made sense in the first place, but now seems particularly humorous.

I’m still in contact with the recipient and his family — they continued to check-in via text during my recovery, then later to sort out some insurance and billing issues. We most recently met in person for the first time after the surgery when they were in town for the Kidney Foundation’s annual walk. Afterward, we went out for a drink. That’s when I learned that he was now cleared to fly, months earlier than expected... and just in time to celebrate his wedding anniversary in Hawaii.

I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to donate a kidney, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing when someone reached out for help. You don’t have to part with an organ to make a difference in the world, of course — there are many, many ways to do something meaningful for another human being, an animal or this ailing planet during a time when self-interest is often exalted. What would happen if the next time you are needed, you remained curious — even if it sounded a little absurd at first? What if you said yes?

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