By Gina Ormand
July 4th is the highlight of the summer, when families across America celebrate together by cooking out, relaxing and sharing stories, all in celebration of freedom. Though I’ve always loved this holiday, Independence Day has taken on a new meaning for my family in the last few years; freedom from kidney disease.
If you have ever had a phone call that made your heart skip a beat, then you know how I was feeling in July 2007.
It was 14 months after my mom passed away of cancer, and my dad was on the line telling me that he needed a kidney transplant. I was 25 years old, barely felt like an adult myself, and my only living parent needed a complicated operation to survive a fatal disease.
I’d known that my dad had trouble with his kidneys for years—though he had tried to protect my sister Jill and me, we had overheard enough to know that it would be an issue for him eventually. Ironically, our limited knowledge of his health issues had us assuming that if we ever had a family tragedy, it would be related to him. They always say it’s the thing you never expect; my mom’s cancer snuck up on us, and transformed our family in ways that we had never imagined.
Back to that phone call with my dad. He was explaining that his kidney function had dropped to below 30%, and he had entered the danger zone where nephrologists begin to recommend a transplant. At that point in 2007, his doctors surmised he was about five years from a transplant, and he needed to begin the process of securing a living donor.
On that call, despite my raw emotions and fear, I felt the same clarity that many other donors have experienced; in that moment, I knew I would be the donor. I truly felt called to do it. I blurted out “You can have my kidney!” prompting my dad to immediately respond “Absolutely not, I would never take your kidney!” His parental instincts provoked the same reaction as so many others in his predicament: how could I ever put my child in harm’s way to save myself?
Over the next few years, we spoke sporadically about his condition and the looming transplant, usually involving the same banter around his refusal to consider me as a donor, and my refusal of his refusal. We visited Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he’d elected to have the surgery, and multiple doctors assured him not only that the risks to donors are very low, but that studies were indicating that live donors are less likely to have kidney problems in the future.
Finally, in October 2011, I got another call from my dad; his kidney function was hovering around 19% and they were ready to schedule his transplant. It was time to have a very real conversation about this surgery, and I needed to make my case. My dad listened to me outline why this was so important to me; in the five years since losing my mom, my dad, sister and I had leaned on each other through many challenging times. Jill and I needed him in our lives, and we weren’t ready to lose him too. His doctors had clearly stated that receiving my young, healthy kidney gave him the best possible prognosis, so my motivations were actually selfish; I wanted to do whatever I could to ensure my dad would be with us for as long as possible.
After weeks of tests upon tests, I was approved as a donor by Hopkins and we scheduled the surgery for May 21, 2012. The evening before, my dad, Jill and I took a walk around the beautiful Baltimore harbor, doing our best to pretend like it was any other breezy Sunday. I read a book about the kidney that instructs the donor to give his or her kidney a pep talk! Tell it about the important task it must accomplish, and send it on the way with love, positivity and courage. The author encourages donors to articulate these feelings to your recipient as well. Though our recent conversations had centered mostly on logistics and creatinine levels, I made sure that night to tell my dad how much I loved him. I thanked him for giving Jill and me such a great life, and for letting me repay him in this way.
I’ll never forget the moment they were ready to roll me off to the operating room; I knew the next few hours would be terrifying for my poor sister as she waited for her only two family members to finish surgery. But in my heart I had the same sense of purpose and clarity that I’d felt since my first conversation with my dad, almost exactly five years before—I knew that the transplant would be successful, and we would both be fine. When I woke up in recovery, Jill was excited to share the news she’d heard from our doctors; as soon as they attached my kidney in my dad’s operating room, it began to produce urine. Apparently, it had obeyed my marching orders from the night before!
Over the next few days and weeks, our family continued to support each other as we had since we lost my mom. Jill alternated between my bedside and my dad’s, helping us sort out our medications and accompanying us on laps around the hospital floor. After I was discharged, Jill and I continued traveling to Baltimore to visit my dad as he began his extended recovery and Jill accompanied him on his final journey back to our hometown of Atlanta.
Two years later, we are both feeling better than ever. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my dad enjoy his freedom from kidney disease, whether he’s eating a banana or taking a brisk walk around the Emory campus. Though the surgery gave him physical independence, we both believe it helped us find emotional independence as well. After 40 years of practicing law, my dad retired and started his own independent mediation practice. A few months after the surgery, I decided to move to New York City and transition to a new industry professionally. Both of us are very happy and excited about the future, and we continue to marvel at this unique bond we will share for the rest of our lives!