2017-11-22 / Front Page

Giving Kidneys, Saving Lives

By James Merolla

Even in her 40s, Newport photographer Jen Carter was determined to give away a kidney. As Newport counselor Kerry Clarke approached 40, she was desperate to receive one. But finding the right match can be tougher than finding the love of a lifetime.

Carter and Clarke are both now recovering from surgery. Carter donated a kidney to an acquaintance; Clarke received one from a cousin.

Virginia Hanson donated a kidney at 56, and Jim Gillis is still looking for one.

There are many people in need of kidney donations, and many who want to donate. The following are just a few of their stories. They are ones of triumph, courage, and for some, enduring hope.

Jen Carter’s Journey

Jen Carter went to high school with her recipient, Holly Mello. While they had mutual friends, they weren’t close.

“I volunteered. She didn’t ask,” Carter said. “What would you do for someone you knew? Someone you didn’t know? Someone who needed help? That was always in the back of my mind.

Jen Carter (left) and Kerry Clarke. Carter gave a kidney to an acquaintance; Clarke received the lifesaving organ from her cousin. 
(Photo by Jordan Branco) Jen Carter (left) and Kerry Clarke. Carter gave a kidney to an acquaintance; Clarke received the lifesaving organ from her cousin. (Photo by Jordan Branco) “I asked [Mello] directly, ‘How are you doing?’ She said, ‘I need a kidney.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll give you mine, if I’m a match.’”

Carter somehow knew she would be. They had the same blood type and other factors were compatible, making surgery possible.

“It’s easier to be a kidney match than a bone marrow donor, but the harder thing is passing through the tests,” Carter said. “They will check you for every disease known to man.”

Carter endured months of grueling tests, psychiatric evaluation and multiple doctor appointments that were paid for by Mello’s insurance. “We are closer friends now,” said Carter, adding that Mello went through an equally exhaustive process.

Carter was interviewed in April and endured appointments starting in late June. She was about to be approved when doctors found cysts on her liver. But after a follow-up exam, she received approval in August.

“Once I commit to something, I do it,” she said. “They want and need to know that you are comfortable with the decision you are making.”

The surgery, which took place Oct. 11, lasted three hours and resulted in a few small scars. Her recovery continues. She feels stronger every day, but still gets tired. “For me it’s a blip on the radar, but for [recipients] it’s a big thing,” Carter said.

Now, if Carter ever needs a kidney herself, she goes to the top of the list.

Kerry Clarke’s Journey

In March 2016, after a seemingly routine physical, Kerry Clarke got a phone call that would forever change her life. Her doctor said there was a problem with her bloodwork and she needed to immediately return to the lab. After repeated tests, the results confirmed that there was an abnormality in her kidney function.

Referred to a nephrologist, Clarke underwent two biopsies, an ultrasound and other tests. A second opinion at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut confirmed that she had Stage 4 kidney disease with a diagnosis of IgA Nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease. She was told she would soon be in end-stage kidney failure and had two options: dialysis or a transplant.

At 39, Clarke says both options seemed overwhelming and left her, along with her family and friends, in shock.

In February, she was admitted to Newport Hospital when her kidneys began to fail. She began life-saving dialysis three times a week, for a total of 15 hours, and had an external port that prohibited showering.

Soon after her diagnosis, Clarke and her family mobilized to find a living donor. She signed up for the national transplant list, but with blood Type O, the wait to find a match could have been six years. The outcomes for living donation are more successful. One of the reasons may be that the need for temporary dialysis after the transplant surgery is less than what is required with a deceased donor transplant, according to the National Kidney Center website.

She waited just seven months because of love. Her cousin, Kristen Hazlewood of North Kingstown, 54, stepped forward.

“Family are more likely to do it,” Clarke said. “It’s better to go direct to transplant. It was seven months for the donor to get approved.”

She praised the leadership at Rogers High School, where she teaches, for accommodating her time off.

“Waiting was a very emotional process. It was worse than the actual surgery,” she said. “You’re stuck in life. You can’t make any plans.”

Weeks later, on tenterhooks, Clarke remained hopeful. When her cousin told her that the transplant was a go, Clarke screamed with joy.

She had surgery on June 15 at Yale New Haven Hospital. “I was just so excited to see my cousin after the surgery,” Clarke said, “knowing she was OK, that there were no complications.”

Clarke takes numerous medications to prevent organ rejection. “They hope for 10 to 15 years [to gain full use of the new kidney],” she said. “It completely changed my life.”

Virginia Hanson’s Journey

Virginia Hanson, 70, of Portsmouth, lived in Newport for 45 years. She raised five children, ran her own company and retired from the military as a federal police officer.

At 56, Hanson donated a kidney. “I had offered a kidney before and didn’t qualify,” she said. “It wasn’t compatible that time. This one, I just took a shot, submitted my blood. We turned out to be compatible. In the end, the doctors thought we were sisters.”

She and Carol Thorpe of Swansea, Mass. were close in age, a requirement for a transplant. “She’s doing great,” Hanson said. “It made me feel great. [We] have a joke. We call each other ‘Sis.’ We have become good friends.”

She didn’t tell her family of her late-in-life decision until she knew it was a match. “I just hinted around,” she said. “Finally, I told my husband I know a person who needs my kidney. All but one of my children was really happy about my decision. One was worried, [and said], ‘But what if your grandson needs a kidney?’”

She responded, “Well, this person was almost dying. She was almost at the end. Dialysis was failing. She was just living her days.”

Hanson tells the story to young people, urging them to save a life. “I’ve lived on one kidney and I’ve done a lot of things since I donated,” she said. “I work out all the time.”

Jim Gillis’ Journey

There are many people who still desperately need a kidney. Jim Gillis, a longtime Newport writer and reporter for the Newport Daily News, has been waiting for years. He is now on dialysis virtually every day. Hundreds have tried to give, to no avail.

Recently, Gillis posted this on Facebook: “Thanks to the more than 600 people who shared my search for a kidney. Hopefully, it will lead to something good. If you’re Type O, 65 or younger and in good health, you could give the gift of life.”

“I’m grateful for my wife, my friends and family. I’ve never had to go it alone for even a second,” Gillis told Newport This Week. “I feel for those who don’t have a strong support system.”

To learn more, contact the R.I. Hospital transplant center or visit the National Kidney Foundation website at kidney.org.

Transplant Facts

• There are currently 121,678 people waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the U.S. Of these, 100,791 await kidney transplants. (as of 1/11/16) • The median wait time for an individual’s first kidney transplant is 3.6 years and can vary depending on health, compatibility and availability of organs. • In 2014, 17,107 kidney transplants took place in the US. Of these, 11,570 came from deceased donors and 5,537 came from living donors. On average: • Over 3,000 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month.

• 13 people die each day while waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant.

• Every 14 minutes someone is added to the kidney transplant list.

• In 2014, 4,761 patients died while waiting for a kidney transplant. Another 3,668 people became too sick to receive a kidney transplant.

National Kidney Foundation (kidney.org)

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