Kornfeld: Living organ donation enhances the donor’s life, too (column)
I am one of the few people who walk into a hospital perfectly healthy to undergo major surgery. In 2004, I did just that. I donated a kidney to my father. Ten years earlier, he was one of the world’s first successful double-lung transplant recipients off a ventilator. The anti-rejection medications he took eventually destroyed his kidneys, and after a decade, he needed another transplant — this time a kidney. I was a perfect match.
When thinking about living organ donation, most people focus on the recipient — justifiably so. The person about to receive a life-saving organ is critically ill. Receiving an organ is literally a lifeline.
When I decided to donate my kidney to my father, my family and friends were generally supportive. They kept telling me how great it was that I was doing something selfless to help my dad. The focus was almost exclusively on him. Yet I was concerned about the unnecessary risk I was taking and what I was losing. Would my health be in jeopardy in the future after removing a kidney?
Research shows life expectancy for living donors does not decrease after donation, but there are risks associated with any elective surgery. Moving forward, I would only have one kidney without a second “backup” kidney if something were to happen to this vital organ. I was fearful that someday I’d be in the same position as my dad and need a kidney transplant of my own.
When I woke up after the surgery, I realized my recovery would be harder in some ways than my father’s. My dad’s new kidney worked immediately, and he began feeling better within hours. I, on the other hand, went from perfectly healthy to adjusting to lower kidney function and recovering from major surgery. I remember going for a run too soon after the surgery against doctor’s advice, a painful mistake. Over time, my one kidney increased in function and I have been perfectly healthy ever since.
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As I look back now nearly 15 years later, I realize my dad wasn’t the only beneficiary of my kidney donation. I, too, received so many benefits from donating my kidney to my father. My recovery was a physical, emotional and mental challenge. It tested my resolve, determination and patience. The experience brought me even closer to my dad and our extended family.
Becoming a living kidney donor changed my outlook. It made me realize what “life and death” really means and what it’s like to live day to day. I learned so much about myself, how I can overcome personal challenges and what’s important in life. I find great meaning and purpose in helping others facing adversity.
Being a living kidney donor is now part of my identity. I think about the experience every single day. I continue to give back to the community by serving on the local and national boards to further organ and tissue donation and by talking with other potential living organ donors.
As meaningful as the experience was for me, I don’t believe everyone should be a living organ donor. It’s not right for everyone. But I do hope every Coloradoan will think about the issue and make the decision that’s right for them. I also encourage people to sign up to become an organ and tissue donor at their passing by visiting http://www.donatelife colorado.org.
While my kidney functioned perfectly for my dad, he only lived a year after our surgeries. Even if I knew in advance that would be the outcome, then I’d still do it all over again, for both of us.
Brad Kornfeld is a part-time Vail Valley resident. He serves on the board of Donor Alliance, the federally designated organization that runs the organ donor registry and facilitates organ and tissue donation in Colorado and Wyoming. He also served as one of the few living donors on the board of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the organization designed by the U.S. Congress to establish transplant policy in the United States.