I Donated a Kidney to a Stranger -- & Then I Got Pregnant

mom holding newborn baby in hospital
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"Are you nervous?" asked the transplant surgeon, scanning the pile of forms on his desk. "Don't be. You're a healthy woman and the long-term risks are negligible. After the surgery, the remaining kidney will double in size and you should regain most of your former function."

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He peered at me over his glasses. "Of course, being a living donor means you won't have a spare if one of your children ever needs one. Do you have children?"

"Nope!" I said cheerfully. "I'm not much of a kid person."

Five months later, I was pregnant with my first child, and terrified about what I had done.

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How had I gotten myself in this situation? An old friend had needed a kidney, and after my rare blood type disqualified me as a donor for him, I signed up for the National Kidney Registry, so I could help someone else. Kidneys transplanted from living donors last about twice as long, up to 30 years if all goes well. And there's plenty of demand: 100,000 people are currently waiting for a kidney. Thirteen of them die each day.

Seeing how my friend had suffered -- surrendering days each week to dialysis and losing both his legs below the knee -- drove home to me how much my good health was the product of luck, better shared than hoarded. I had donated eggs several times in my early 20s, and the same logic applied: I had more of something than I needed, someone else had less, and if minor surgery could even things out, sign me up.

When the donor coordinator called with a match about a year later, it felt like perfect timing. My relationship of almost a decade had ended abruptly, leaving me shaken and unsure what to do next. I'd lost the person I loved, my job was stressful and exhausting, and I was packing to move out of the home where I'd lived for many years. After months of feeling rejected and directionless, I finally had a sense of purpose.

I didn't have time to get frightened until I was on the table, the anesthesiologist's kindly face hovering above my own. I breathed, I counted backwards, and I woke up in recovery with a Band-Aid over my belly button and a head full of tumbleweeds. A friend took a picture of me examining a snap on my gown with great interest; I look kite-high. I spent only a single night in the hospital, with my oldest friend -- my summer-camp sweetheart -- wedged uncomfortably on a cot next to my bed, wearing an extra hospital gown as pajamas. I was sent home with a bottle of Percocet, but the better medicine was a midnight text from the transplant coordinator: "Surgery successful. Kidney adjusting beautifully. Patient will live."

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Two months later, the friend and I had fallen in love. A month after that, he proposed. Three months later, I was pregnant. Surprise.

I was equal parts thrilled, scared, and nauseated. What I'd said to the surgeon was true: I've never been a kid person, and had never considered having children until I fell in love with my husband, whose eagerness to have a family had touched my heart. Pregnancy made my body feel alien to me, a delicate system thrown tenuously out of balance. Dizzy with morning sickness, I lost 15 pounds in the first trimester. I felt fragile and vulnerable in a way I never had before, even when I was sprawled on the couch recovering from having an organ removed.

At 37, my most immediate risk factor was my age, but a pregnancy with only one kidney means an increased, though still tiny, risk of preeclampsia, high blood pressure, and stroke. Had I put my newly unreliable body in danger? I was more frightened for my daughter, whose new, tiny kicks felt like being tapped gently from the inside with a pencil eraser. Had I endangered her life by giving away something she might one day need?

The labor was long but uneventful, and the first months of Rachel's life were joyful and exhausting. When she cried, I walked her around and around the block so she'd fall asleep in her carrier, sure that every twinge I felt (and there were many, in those first weeks postpartum!) was my remaining kidney failing and waste flooding into my blood. I clutched her to me, loosening my grip only when she yelped in protest, imagining nightmare scenarios in which her tiny body was hooked up to dialysis machines while stern doctors tsk-tsked me. "IF ONLY YOU HAD THOUGHT THIS THROUGH," they trumpeted.

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Then the recipient, anonymous at the time of the donation, reached out to me over email. He's 25, adjusting to his new life without weekly dialysis, without onerous food and drink restrictions, and with a much-reduced risk of stroke and heart attack. We chatted, tentatively -- I have no precedent for this particular relationship -- and I discovered he was only 17 when diagnosed, an age that already seems all too soon for my daughter. My heart wrenched when I imagined his mother hearing the news, and I was filled with a fierce wash of gratitude for Rachel's health. Like all new mothers, I wake up in the night and tiptoe to the crib, peering into her radiant little face and listening to make sure she's still breathing. The mother of the young man with whom I now share a set of kidneys once stood listening over his crib, too. How can I regret helping to extend his life, at so little risk to my own? 

As Rachel grows older and more alert, learning a new skill seemingly every day, my fears and guilt are slowly draining away. The likelihood of her developing chronic kidney disease is tiny, and well out of my control. I could make myself crazy examining my every decision, or I can enjoy my gloriously healthy daughter, whose every smile fills me with love.

I no longer have a spare kidney to give my daughter, on the minuscule chance she will ever need one. But I have so much else. I have the story of how I started to fall in love with her father during that long, sleepless hospital night, and how our love led to my decision to give motherhood a shot. I have a lesson to teach her from our Jewish faith, the mandate of tikkun olam -- the repair of the world -- which calls us to work for positive change and to give to others, whether that's donating money, blood, or an organ, whether it's marching, or calling our representatives, or simply being kind on the playground.

And I have the story of a miracle: Surgeons unplugged an organ from my body and plugged it into someone else's, and both of us lived. In a world where such things are possible, I have faith that there is nothing she could ever need that, with a little luck, can't be found.

 

Interested in becoming a living donor? Please contact the National Kidney Registry.

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