Giving the Gift of Life: Instructor Donates Kidney
For some, the decision to donate a kidney might come with a great deal of internal struggle and even fear.
For Ann Mills, a biology and chemistry instructor at Minnesota West, there was no deliberation. “When I first heard the need, there was no debate within me,” she said. “I never hesitated. I knew from the get-go I’d move forward with the process.”
That process, as it turned out, was a long one, beginning with a discussion in the car last summer on the way home from a family wedding and ending with surgery on Jan. 7.
For her cousin, David, the process has been even longer. “He’s been diabetic for years, and the stress of that was a big reason that his kidneys were failing,” Ann explained. “Then, last March or April, he began dialysis. It’s a huge process. Three times a week he’d have to go in, for hours at a time.”
David’s immediate family had all been checked and dismissed as possible donors. Some of them matched in blood type, but none of them matched in the next step. And so his search broadened.
“Dave is a very humble guy,” Ann said. “He was never in anyone’s face asking if they’d get tested, but the information trickled down through the family, asking if anyone else was willing to be tested. I was fairly sure that I would be a blood match.”
Ann’s certainty was based on her knowledge that she has Type O blood, which in blood-donating terms is the perfect type of blood to have. Known as the “universal donor,” people with Type O blood are a match for any other blood type. She, of course, had to have her blood officially checked, and thus began the first step on the road to donation.
From there, Ann was required to swab the inside of her cheeks in a search for six separate cell markers. If the markers were present — either as exact matches or as compatible ones — then she could continue on with the process without fear of rejection issues. If they weren’t, she’d be done. Ann and Dave matched exactly on one count and the other five were compatible, so the journey continued.
“At that point, there were all sorts of physical work ups I went through,” Ann described, “and then two, 24-hour urine collections. Everything was OK, so I went to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), and there they did more blood and urine tests, and I had an EKG and met with a social worker and a psychologist. They want to make sure you have a support network.”
Ann was full of praise for the transplant staff at HCMC.
“I felt like they did a really good job at making sure their donors know what they’re in for,” she said. “I was given the option at every point of the process to back out. They did a good job of making sure the recipient and the donor are safe and have full knowledge of everything.”
Ann continued to pass her tests with flying colors. She was fairly sure the surgery would take place in October, and she began to set her life on hold in anticipation of the event. Then she had a CT scan of her kidneys, and everything slowed down.
“They have to check to make sure that the donor’s kidneys are healthy, that they’re of equal size and are functioning correctly, that the blood vessels are good,” Ann said. “Occasionally, people only have one kidney, so they have to make sure of that, too. In that process, they found that I had a kidney stone.”
What followed were more urine collections, a lot of discussions among the team of doctors, some number crunching, and finally, the determination that the stone was not a concern and would not jeopardize Ann’s donation. In fact, the doctors weren’t even certain that it was a stone.
After weeks of waiting, Ann was given the green light on Dec. 20 to go ahead and schedule the surgery if she was still willing.
For Ann, not moving forward was not an option. “My only thought was how could I not move forward when this person I love will have such a better life?” she remembered.
So, the date was set for Jan. 7. Knowing the surgery would come, Ann had been in talks with her boss at the college, Jeff Williamson, who was supportive of Ann’s plans. They had a capable adjunct instructor, Andrew Dierks, available to cover her classes.
“I was lucky to have Andrew,” Ann emphasized. “Since we had advance warning, we could collaborate on the classes. He did a great job.”
Ann found out, too, that the state of Minnesota offers its employees up to 40 hours leave time for donors. This meant that at least some of the projected two to four weeks of recovery time wouldn’t have to come out of her sick time or vacation time. As it turned out, her recovery went smoothly — as did the procedure itself.
“The surgery went really well,” Ann said. “I didn’t even need pain meds afterward. They kept saying I was amazing! Everybody’s pain level is very different, but for me I honestly thought it was relatively easy. I’m a big believer that a lot has to do with your attitude. I knew there would be pain, but it was a really good thing to do for my cousin so it would be worth it.”
Ann’s kidney — which looked good and gave no concerns to the doctors — was eager to begin its job as David’s kidney.
“It began functioning immediately for him,” Ann smiled. “Even before it was 100 percent stitched- in, it was functioning.”
Ann was in the hospital for two days. She then spent the following day resting at her sister’s house in the Twin Cities, and then her husband picked her up and took her home — minus one kidney but full of thankfulness for all she’d been able to do.
“People keep saying that it was great and amazing what I did,” Ann mused. “And that’s all very well and good, but I know that a lot of people would step up to the plate if someone they knew and loved needed help. None of it was difficult. It was much more time-consuming than anticipated, but I wouldn’t change my decision because it was the right decision. There were no complications, and he is doing great. I would do it again in a heartbeat if I could.”
Ann returned to work two and a half weeks after her surgery. She faces no higher long-term risk for kidney issues than anyone else. Her only risk would be if something happened to her remaining kidney, leaving her — like her cousin — with the need for dialysis and donation.
One perk to her status as a donor, however, is if that should ever happen, she is automatically moved up to the top of the donor priority list. But Ann is not concerned.
“I never had any big psychological issues with my decision. I feel good. I was tired for a couple weeks afterward, but now I’m great.
“My cousin told me that now he feels so good that he didn’t realize how truly crappy he felt until he was better. He sent me a letter last week and said, ‘Thanks a million times. But how do I even say thanks?’”
For Ann, knowing that her cousin is off of dialysis and doing well is thanks enough.
Daily Globe story by Gretchen O'Donnell.
Photo by Daily Globe.