For some people, the term “friend” refers to someone with whom they share mutual interests or enjoy spending time with. For others, a friend is someone they trust and respect, someone to confide in when they’re upset or worried.
Marian H. had always felt fortunate to be surrounded by people who she considered friends; the kind of people who would give her a ride to work if she was having car trouble, or treat her to dinner on her birthday.
But it wasn’t until 2008, when she was facing the possibility that her kidneys would fail while waiting for a transplant, did the mother of three realize just how strong a bond can exist between two people.
At age 28, Marian was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic condition that affected her late father and was also inherited by three of her four siblings. Although PKD progresses slowly, it can cause numerous complications ranging from high blood pressure and anemia, to kidney stones and eventual kidney failure.
In 2007, at age 53, Marian initiated the process of getting placed on the kidney transplant waiting list at Scripps Center for Organ and Cell Transplantation.
Two of her siblings had already required and received transplants, and Marian’s health had reached the point where she could soon require dialysis for the rest of her life.
“With kidney disease, you have the option to continue living thanks to dialysis,” said Marian. “But dialysis takes a huge toll on your time and your lifestyle, and I wasn’t going to give in without a fight.”
Marian was aware of the sobering statistics: there are thousands more people waiting for a kidney transplant than there are kidneys available. But if she could find a living person willing to donate a kidney, she could dramatically reduce her time spent waiting for a kidney from a deceased donor.
Armed with that knowledge, Marian sent a letter to her friends and family to update them on her health and her need for a new kidney, and to educate them about the process for becoming a living donor.
And then she waited.
Holly A. has known Marian since high school. Over the years the pair kept in touch, sometimes more frequently than others as they lived in different cities and were busy raising their children. In 1996 Holly moved back to San Diego, and over time she and Marian became quite close as they started kayaking or walking together weekly.
Upon receiving Marian’s letter about her need for a new kidney, Holly called Scripps to find out more about the living donor process.
“I knew that I wanted to help Marian, but I also knew it was a decision that required a lot of thought,” said Holly. “I did some research on the risks associated with giving up a kidney, everything from the surgery itself to how living with one kidney would affect my lifestyle. But in the end, despite any risks, I just felt called to donate.”
Although Holly started the process for becoming a living donor in July 2008, she didn’t tell Marian.
“I was afraid to give Marian false hope, in case the donation fell through,” she said. “I didn’t want her to feel crushed if for some reason I was found to be an unsuitable match.”
For the next three months Holly went through an extensive work-up by the Scripps transplant team to ensure she was a suitable candidate.
“We have to make sure all potential donors are not only medically and physically eligible, but also emotionally ready,” said Amy Knight, transplant supervisor with Scripps Center for Organ and Cell Transplantation.
“Medically we want to make sure the patient will do well through surgery and then be able to live with only one kidney. We want to make absolutely certain that they can follow a healthy lifestyle after donating, that they have a support system in place to help care for them following surgery – and perhaps most importantly, that they truly want to be an organ donor.”
In October 2008, Holly received official confirmation that she was a suitable match. Only then did she surprise Marian with the news: her wait for a new kidney was almost over.
On March 3, 2009, Marian realized just how priceless friendship can be. On that day, her friend gave her more than just a functioning kidney — she gave her restored health and quality of life.
Both women were discharged from the hospital less than five days after their transplant surgery. And less than three months later, the two took a trip to the Hawaiian island of Kauai to celebrate their recovery.
“I donated a kidney in March, and by August I felt like I was 100 percent back to normal,” said Holly. “My lifestyle hasn’t changed at all. I still run and kayak, I still swim and surf. I have no regrets – if I had to do it all over again, I definitely would.”
Barring any problems with rejection or other health issues, odds are that Marian’s new kidney will last roughly 20 years — well into her 70s — even though she continues to live with PKD.
“No words can express my appreciation for the gift Holly gave,” said Marian. “She made an amazingly brave decision, and in my mind she’s more than just a friend. She’s a hero.”