For three teachers at Libby Elementary School, National Kidney Month in March and National Donate Life month in April have a very personal significance.
Mary Gier, Mary Miller and Julie Sagissor all feel they owe their lives to the kindness of someone willing to give a kidney.
For Miller, whose kidneys deteriorated about 20 years ago, the donation that kept her off of dialysis came from close to home: her brother, Matt Havens, is also a teacher and had to take about a month off of work and use sick days to recover after the surgery.
“He’s my lifesaver,” she said. “He had a very young daughter at the time too, so he had to put his life on hold.”
Sagissor had kidney problems from birth. One quit functioning completely, and over time the other failed as well. Sagissor said she owes her life to a family willing to donate the kidneys of a deceased family member.
Since she was working at Libby Elementary when she received her transplant last year, Sagissor said she was also grateful for the understanding of the schools administration and Libby Elementary Principal Ron Goodman.
When a transplant became available, she had very little notice and spent about two months off of work recovering, she said. “The administration was amazing.”
Gier’s kidneys slowly failed as a complication of lupus, with problems starting in her teens.
Several people in her family tried to donate to her, but none were a match, she said. But, she was able to finally get a replacement kidney through a living donor exchange program at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.
Living in gratitude
“My brother, who could not donate to me, donated to somebody else, and then that person had someone donate to me,” Gier said.
Though the exchange program is anonymous, after the surgeries the participants are able to exchange information through letters. In Miller’s case, she and her brother, Mike Riplinger, were able to meet the two brothers — both Catholic priests — who they exchanged with.
“The hard part is, you just can’t express enough, your gratitude,” Gier said.
“It’s the difference between existing and trying to survive, and living your life again,” Sagissor said.
Miller said she is still grateful decades later for the support she received, from the church, school and community members who stepped in to offer assistance or moral support as she recovered, to her husband driving her to Spokane three days a week.
“Afterwards, you feel just blessed,” Gier said.
Sagissor said she thinks about the people who chose to donate the organ of their deceased family member. Though she has never met them, she did write them a short letter telling them of the impact their sacrifice has for her.
“They have to put their grieving aside for a while. They have to postpone that, because they have to do all of those tests,” she said. “They are willing, even in that — it’s obviously a traumatic situation — they are still willing to go ahead and take that path of doing a donation.”
When Gier wrote the brothers, she told them that they had not only changed her life, but the lives of her three young children and her ability to continue teaching.
“It’s very hard to stay working when you’re on dialysis,” she said.
None of the three Libby teachers feel they can ever pay back the life-saving sacrifices of their donors, but all said they hope they could inspire someone else to save a life.
The most common source of kidney donations at Sacred Heart — where all three women received their transplants — is from friends and family members, said Brenda Fairman, the transplant program manager.
Living donors, including family members or friends, have to be screened not just for the recipient’s sake, but their own as well, Fairman said. “We want to make sure that (donors) are in the best health possible, and we also don’t want to cause any harm to them in the future.”
Among those who don’t know anyone who is a match, who is interested and who is healthy enough to donate, a few receive their kidneys through an exchange, such as Gier did, Fairman said. For most of them, though, the average wait time for a kidney from a deceased donor is four to five years.
There are a few of what they call “altruistic donors,” people with no connection to someone with kidney disease who volunteer to be a living donor only because they want to help a stranger, said Donnetta Cole, Sacred Heart’s donor transplant coordinator.
Some years there may be five altruistic donors. Other years there may be only one.
“One of the bigger myths, too, is that people think their donor has to be related,” Cole said. As demonstrated by stories such as Gier’s, it’s often the case that someone has to be found outside a family for a transplant match.
On the donor side, concern over cost may also discourage some living donors from coming forward, Cole said. Many people believe they will have to take on medical expenses or travel to Spokane repeatedly.
While some things do have to be done at the Spokane facility, much of the preparation and evaluation may be done locally to the donor, she said. Donors still have to cover their own travel and lodging, and account for the time they may be unable to work while they recover from surgery, but they aren’t responsible for any of the procedural costs.
April 13 is Blue and Green Day, when people are encouraged to wear blue and green to support organ donation, Fairman said.
“There’s hundreds and thousands of people out there that are in the same boat as us, and they are waiting for a phone call,” Gier said. “So, if we can get more people willing to donate, then more people will be living.”
“It’s hard on the donor, but like my brother would say, he wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said.
Anyone interested in finding out more about organ donation, being a living donor or receiving a packet with information can call 800-667-0502.