Would You Donate a Kidney to a Stranger?

I’m not sure If everyone does this, but when I mountain bike alone I think about a lot of things besides riding. I suppose when I first started riding I was very focused on the bike, how it worked and the obstacles in my way. I’ve been riding mountain bikes for over 25 years and now my “skills” allow me ride while my mind drifts off in a hundred different directions. Five years ago if I would ride alone or in a group my mind would keep coming back to the same topic. This new guy in my life John and our epic adventure off the bike.  And would I be back to mountain biking after this adventure was over?
John came into my life by way of an email. That email was sent out asking a few people if we would be willing to take John to his dialysis appointments. You see John is blind and getting to those appointments was impossible without a little help. Since I didn’t have a valid excuse, (yes I tried to think of something) I signed up to be a part of a team that rotated picking John up at home and dropping him off for his appointments. Right away I had already given myself a pat on the back for taking a blind guy to dialysis.
The first time I picked up John, I quickly learned that John had an amazing attitude and a great sense of humor. Our conversation wasn’t about how it sucked to be blind and have to go to dialysis three times a week for hours at a time, but John asking about my family and him making me laugh. Our drive was very short and I helped him to his appointment as planned.
Our second trip turned out to be a bit different with me accidentally parking at the wrong building. My excuse is that it’s dark at 5am, all the buildings look the same and in this case my co-pilot can’t see. Knowing that I was in the wrong spot I turned to John and said “I guess you aren’t going to be able to help me find the right building?” we both laughed at my first blind joke. I knew we were close, so we got out and I helped John into his wheel chair. I forgot to mention John being blind, with failed kidneys also was in a wheelchair after his guide dog messed up big time and walked him off a ledge…the fall causing a pretty bad knee injury to John. You can see why I say he had an amazing attitude for his current situation.
So I pushed John in his chair to the correct building and we had to wait a few minutes until someone at the facility let us in the dialysis room. While waiting John heard the familiar voice of a fellow dialysis patient and they began talking. I half listened and honestly wanted the door to open so I could be on my way. Their conversation turned to the topic of each of their time on the kidney donor waiting list. I don’t remember what the other man said his wait was, but I clearly remember John saying seven years. I remember thinking seven years? He can’t do dialysis for 7 more years! Then John told the guy his blood type…A +…It was then that I got what was like a push in the back saying “you’re A+…you can donate a kidney to John”. Certain people will dismiss all this up to chance or being in the right place at the right time (or wrong time?), but as a Christian I believe it was God’s spirit giving me a path to follow. I know if it was up to me, sure I’d give John a ride to his appointments, but give him a major part of my body? Face the chance of dying….leaving a wife and kids behind….no more mountain biking? Come on…God had a plan! Wasn’t mine.
So at this point I’d known John for a total of about 15 minutes and I’d decided to give him a kidney. Really having zero idea what that meant for me; I went home and discussed the idea with my wife and she was good with it. So I called John to let him know. His reaction was more subdued than I thought it would be and now I understand why. To say you’ll donate is one thing, but actually having all of the pieces come together on both sides is another. John understood this at the time as he had had someone else want to donate in the past but that person wasn’t a match for him.
Step one was a simple blood test to see if John and I were a match. I don’t remember the exact timeline, but the results came back and the nurse told me we couldn’t be a better match unless we were brothers. For me one of the more difficult things about the process of being a living donor is the time it takes to donate. There were a large number of tests that I had to go through in order for me to get the green light. All of this taking place over a ten month period. Ten months where only a few people knew what I was going through and ten months where a bit of doubt began to creep in. What was is store for me after all this? Would John’s body reject my kidney? Could I walk? Ride a mountain bike? You’d be amazed at some of the things people say to you and honestly it seems like they think you are crazy. For the most part I had an amazing amount of support, but the doubters did make me do a bit of second guessing. When the doctors lay out the list of what can go wrong with a major surgery like this I think anyone would get a bit nervous. I even had one doctor spend some time trying to talk me out of it without saying “don’t do this” directly.
With ten months gone by and all our tests passed we finally got a surgery date. Our surgery was a success with me waking up to the news that my kidney began to work in John’s body right away. John waking up to the same great news. The next morning I was able to very slowly walk down the hallway at UCLA and see John for the first time since surgery. It was great to see his always smiling face.
I went home the day after surgery….in pain? Yeah. It takes a couple weeks to really get moving again. I was back on the mountain bike after four weeks of recovery and back at the gym around the same time. Life for me as donor is completely back to normal. On the other side is John, who no longer has to endure 3 full days a week of dialysis. He is no longer limited to what and how much he can drink. No more nights of going to the bathroom 10 times a night. He can travel now. No more 7 year waiting list. Every update I get from him is more positive news.
I read that 18,000 people die a year waiting for kidney transplants. It’s possible that might be a member of your family or someone you work with. It might even be someone you’ve only known for 15 minutes like me. There are thousands of living donors each year and I’m just one of them. I’m writing to spread the news and hope that someone reads this and might consider donating.
-Keith Pytlinski
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