Donating a kidney was 'the best decision I ever made'
By Christine Adams
Jun 24, 2016 | 11:25 AM
The parents of Brooke Dawkins, who was killed in a crash two years ago, met the parents of the woman who received Brooke's kidney and pancreas.
On May 3, I lost one of my closest friends. Tom Barrett died of multiple myeloma at the age of 55. However, Tom lived much longer than he might have, thanks to two kidney donations, one at the age of 20 and the other at the age of 43. His sister donated her kidney to him while he was a college student at the University of Virginia. I donated mine while we were both professors in the history department at St. Mary's College of Maryland. It was the best decision I ever made.
I am still mourning the loss of Tom, who died far too young. A creative and accomplished scholar of Russian history and mass culture, Tom was a dynamic and inspiring teacher. In the last two weeks of his life, we posted a notice to history alumni about his illness in case they wanted to contact him. The letters came pouring in, testifying to the impact that he had had in the lives of so many of our students. He was a generous and committed colleague who was widely admired for great passion and integrity. Everyone knew how much he loved jazz, science fiction, film noir, and the Chicago Cubs — especially the Cubs; he had an entire wardrobe of Cubs-branded clothing. And he was more fun than anyone I have ever known: smart and incisive, sometimes biting, but always honest and caring. On a regular basis, Tom and his wife Liisa invited friends for zakuski (Russian appetizers) and vodka shots. Tom always led off with the first of the toasts, which became increasing sentimental as the evening progressed. Our dinner parties with a beloved circle of mutual friends over the years are part of the soundtrack of my life.
An auto-immune disease that doctors never identified destroyed Tom's original kidneys. I learned in passing, not long after we started working together in 1995, that Tom had had a kidney transplant in his youth. In 2002, over coffee, Tom told me that his kidney function had begun to decline and that he was probably facing dialysis or another transplant in the not-too-distance future. That evening, I sent him an email, telling him that my blood type was O positive — the same as his, as it turned out — and that I was happy to see if I was a suitable donor.
I started the battery of testing: blood and urine screening, an MRI and psychological evaluation. Tom's kidney function stabilized for a while, and we watched his creatinine levels slowly rise over the next year. By the fall of 2003, the kidney decline had accelerated, and we scheduled the surgery at Georgetown University Hospital over our winter break. Because we were able to plan ahead, Tom didn't have to go on dialysis, as he had back in college.
I was lucky to have the winter break to recover, and I was back teaching a full course load a month later. I was in my early 40s and in relatively good health; my body healed quite quickly. Tom was reluctant to talk about the surgery — he did not want his medical issues to be a subject of discussion among students, especially as he suffered from a variety of health issues over the years. Out of respect for his privacy, I didn't discuss it much either.
But I had always wanted to make a full-throated case for living kidney donation, and in his last weeks, Tom encouraged me to do so. I have never understood why more people do not step forward. Why do so many people linger on the kidney donation waiting list? Where are their families, their friends? I understand that for many people, it could be a financial burden. While the recipient's insurance covers most costs, few people could risk major surgery and possible long-term consequences without their own insurance. For some, it could be difficult to spare the time from work. So clearly, we need better medical and financial support for potential donors. But I suspect that it is fear of the risks of surgery and life with one kidney that stops most potential donors from stepping forward. I understood when I agreed to be a donor that there were potential risks, but in truth, donating the kidney was no big deal for me. Certainly, surgery entails discomfort, but my family and I never questioned that the risk and temporary pain were well worth what we all gained.
Tom considered the kidney that I donated a gift, but it was a gift to me as well. I know that his sister felt the same way. I got the chance to step up and make a difference. The surgery created a passionate bond between us and our two families that only deepened with time. I got to have Tom in my life for another 12 years. During that time, he probably taught close to a thousand more students, many of whom came to share his love for history and Russian culture. He saw his son become a young man, and his daughter, born three months after the surgery, grow to the cusp of young womanhood. His family and friends had more years to share their lives with him. We had long talks over coffee, and shared more vodka shots and many laughs. While I am still angry that a man with so much to offer spent so much of his life fighting health challenges that most of us can only imagine, I am so grateful that I had the chance to give him — and us — a little more time.