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The Gift of Life

When I donated a kidney to my sister-in-law, our bond was forever sealed

The Gift of a Kidney

Courtesy of Mary Mohler

Mary Mohler, left, and her sister-in-law Phylis in the hospital waiting room before the surgery to transplant Mohler's kidney into Phylis.

En español │It was a typical afternoon with my sister-in-law, Phylis: We were lounging around, still in our pajamas, glued to the TV, and talking and laughing our way through The Palm Beach Story, part of her collection of about 1,200 old movies. What was different about that day, though, was that both of us had just been discharged from Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital after kidney surgery. Coincidence? Not at all. She had just received a kidney transplant — and I had provided the kidney.

Phylis and I first met in 1979. I had flown back to my hometown in Washington state to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and my brother, David, brought as his date this 5-foot-10 brunette with a mop of curly hair and a screwball sense of humor. We bonded instantly, and while everyone else snored off the feast, the two of us talked. And talked. When it was time for her to leave, we were almost in tears at the thought we might not ever see each other again.

Fortunately, my brother didn't let her get away; they married the following April. Though we saw each other only intermittently, we never stopped talking. But it wasn't just our easy intimacy that cemented the bond. As the years went by, I discovered what an enormous heart she has. When my parents were both in an assisted living facility, she visited them every day for four years. When I was a frazzled single mom, she often invited my three children to spend a week with her and David so I could have a break — during which she introduced them to the joy of old movies such as Casablanca, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and countless others. Not to mention she was a mean pinochle player.

So, in the fall of 2009, when we learned that Phylis' kidneys had been damaged by diabetes, I offered one of mine on the spot. She insisted things weren't that bad, but by April 2010, she was put on dialysis — four hours a day, three days a week.

Later that month, my husband and I had the first interview with Mary Mason, the donor advocate at Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital — a nearly three-hour phone marathon from my home in Newport, R.I. For the next few months, we talked or e-mailed on a regular basis. I provided blood and urine samples at my local hospital, which were then delivered overnight to Seattle and analyzed for compatibility.

I'd always thought "compatible" meant the donor and the recipient had to match on at least five of the six markers used in tissue typing. In fact, even a zero-match kidney from a living donor is far superior to a perfect match from a deceased donor: It begins working more quickly, functions better and offers a higher survival rate.

In July, I flew to Seattle for my final physical exam. I was in my early 60s and everything checked out. We settled on Aug. 31 as D-Day. The transplant team was so inspiring that I really wasn't scared — except maybe just a tiny bit right before anesthesia. As my kidney was being removed, Phylis would be prepped and waiting in the next-door operating room with her own surgical team.

"I owe you my life. I couldn't love you more if you were my own sister."

The five-hour surgery went smoothly, and the next thing I knew, I was looking at Puget Sound shimmering in the sunlight outside my window. Twenty-four hours after my surgery, feeling like I'd been kicked by a draft horse, I hobbled into Phylis' room. She motioned me over to her bed and gave me the biggest hug the welter of IVs, tubes and monitors would permit.

"I owe you my life," she said, with tears in her eyes. "I couldn't love you more if you were my own sister."

Suddenly, my tummy didn't hurt quite so much.

Three days later, I checked into a nearby hotel (hospital staffers want you close by for the first 10 days). Phylis joined me a day later, and we were in movie heaven for the next week. Recovery was faster than I imagined. After the first couple of weeks post-op, I was comfortable with an occasional Tylenol. Six weeks after the surgery, I enrolled in class to learn gatka, Indian martial arts. Now, after six months, I'm back to doing everything I used to do. Phylis was back working part time at her job as travel agent after six weeks. Her doctor recently pronounced that her post-transplant constitution is that of a 50-year-old, not the 70-year-old she really is.

I won't lie to you: The post-op pain was a thing to be reckoned with for the first week or two, but it was nothing that couldn't be handled with medication. Besides, that part was so brief. What I really remember, and always will, is that I participated in a miracle. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

What Every Living Donor Needs to Know

  • More than 110,000 Americans are on the transplant waiting list, and that number increases every month.
  • You're never too old to donate; a healthy 70-year-old makes a better donor than a 30-year-old who smokes.
  • Kidney donation is major surgery. Besides your transplant center's informed consent process, you may want to connect with other living donors through the National Kidney Foundation to help you make this important decision.
  • Make sure the transplant center you choose has experience with living donor transplants. The United Network for Organ Sharing compiles statistics on every transplant center in the United States.
  • The recipient's insurance will usually cover your evaluation, surgery and post-op care but not travel costs, lodging or lost wages. If this presents a financial hardship, the National Living Donor Assistance Center may be able to help with expenses up to $6,000.
  • Some donors have had difficulty changing insurance carriers after the surgery. Ask your donor advocate to help you find out about the potential effect of kidney donation on your own health or life insurance coverage.
  • Bring your own advocate to the hospital — a spouse, family member or trusted friend — to see you through your stay there. Hospitals, even the best of them, make mistakes; you need someone with you who can pay attention to the details and isn't afraid to speak up.