You just don’t know who you are going to touch and what someone’s connection could be, according to Melinda Estelle, a kidney donor. Since donating her kidney to a coworker’s husband a year and a half ago, Estelle has been an advocate for kidney donation and the life changing impact it has.
On campus as a volunteer with New England Donor Services during the blood drive, Estelle worked with staff members from the Brandeis Development Office who were trying to spread the word about their colleague Dania Khandaker and community member Monica Ramirez, both individuals in need of kidney donations.
“It’s definitely a doable thing. Organ donation doesn’t have to be as scary as some people think,” explained Estelle. “I think if you are considering [kidney donation at all], you should talk to the people at the transplant center.”
Estelle admits that had the opportunity presented itself five years earlier she would not have been at a place in her life to donate. But she emphasized that if the time is right and you feel a connection, donation is not only an incredibly rewarding experience, but a safe one as well.
After she discovered her coworker’s husband would need a kidney transplant, Estelle began to mull over the idea of donating a kidney herself. “I just felt very connected to him,” explained Estelle. As a senior in college, her father passed away due to kidney cancer, and although he could not have had a kidney transplant himself, she believed people would have donated for him.
“He was just a real kind soul, a real giving soul, and if transplant had been an option, I just feel like there would have been people who would have wanted to do that for him,” she explained. “I just felt a connection.”
While the interest and will to donate was enough to begin the process, it was only the beginning. Before she was able to officially make a decision about whether or not she was going to donate, Estelle went through a long medical analysis to ensure she was even a potential donor—a process all individuals interested in donation go through.
“The workup that they do is unbelievably thorough, because they want you to be healthy and they want to know that you can handle the surgery and that your body is ready for that,” said Estelle. The decision regarding whether or not an individual is able to donate does not end with the two-day workup. Once testing is complete, the doctors present the potential donor’s information to a transplant board, which determines if the individual is chosen as a donor, explained Estelle.
Following the board’s decision, potential donors are then forced to take a two-week reflection period to consider whether or not they want to donate.
The two days of testing at the transplant center, while important medically, are also important in terms of getting to hear the experiences of individuals who have already gone through the process, said Estelle, who met both individuals two weeks after surgery and over a year out of surgery. “Everyone’s experience is different, but you can learn something from each of those conversations,” Estelle said.
For each kidney donation, there are two teams: One team for the donor and one for the recipient. According to Estelle, the objective of these teams—separate until after surgery—is to ensure, at least on the donor’s end, he or she is absolutely confident in the decision to donate. “Knowing that you do have control over the process, for me, was a really important piece … and the team goes out of their way to make sure you feel no pressure to make the decision to have surgery. They give you every reason to step away. They don’t put any pressure on you at all,” said Estelle.
Estelle’s surgery took place on a Tuesday, and that Friday she was back at home and visiting her neighbor next door. While she felt physically well after surgery and recovered successfully—now, a year and a half later, she feels no effects of the surgery and has resumed all of her activities—the fatigue in the months following the operations came as the biggest surprise.
“The one thing is the fatigue,” explained Estelle. “When you have a kidney removed, your body does have a great sense of fatigue.” While she was not functioning at full energy, two months after surgery Estelle was able to take a two-week business trip to Texas without a problem. “[The fatigue] is just something you sort of have to give into,” she said.
Now a year and a half out of surgery, Estelle could not be happier with her decision. While at the time the decision to donate was tough not only physically, but for her husband as well, who initially had trouble understanding why she was willing to go through major surgery by choice for an individual she didn’t directly know, it was ultimately the right thing.
“Everyone assumes that it’s a relative that donates [a kidney], and that’s not necessarily the case,” said Estelle, who then told the story of a woman who donated her kidney to someone with diabetes because her brother had lost a kidney to diabetes as well. “It’s hard for people [who need a kidney]. They don’t want to feel like they are burdening anyone with their problems, but you don’t know how someone is going to relate to your story or feel connected. For me, it was a way to honor my dad.”
Ultimately, while the decision to donate is not one to be taken lightly, Estelle testifies to the fact that it is entirely doable, survivable and rewarding in more ways than imaginable.