Gift of Life

When asked how he has been since becoming a kidney donor, Dan Coyne pours forth information about living donor registries, the high cost of dialysis and the need for education.

It’s simple to sign up to donate organs and tissues if possible upon one’s death, on a drivers license or through a state registry. It’s an important step, but only a part of what is needed.

There are more than 112,000 transplant candidates, with nearly 90,000 waiting for kidneys, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Only 7,000 people — living or dead — had donated organs between January and June.

One can imagine donating a kidney if a relative or friend needed one. What about a stranger or an acquaintance?

Coyne, 53, a member of Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill., a Mennonite congregation, gave one of his kidneys in March 2010 to Myra de la Vega, 50, whom he had known as a clerk at the grocery store where he shopped.

After learning de la Vega had renal failure, Coyne felt called to offer to be a donor. That brought their families together.

“The closeness is always there,” de la Vega said.

Now healthy, though with the suppressed immune system a recipient requires, de la Vega reaches out to others when she can. She sometimes visits a support group for people on dialysis.

“To keep them hopeful,” she said. “I always pray for the dialysis patients.”

She works at the same grocery store, and customers tell her stories about their loved ones with kidney issues. She adds them to her already-long prayer list.

“When a patient is on dialysis, it is not just the patient, the whole family suffers,” she said.

At its root, living simply is about sharing what we have with those who have need. There are few manifestations of that as profound as giving years or even decades of life to another person.

After donation, the remaining kidney does the work of two. Risk of kidney failure does not rise significantly for living donors, studies show, though some populations have more incidences than others.

In a sense, then, for healthy people having two kidneys is like having two coats. If one would give a coat to someone who was cold, why not give an extra kidney to save a life?

The surgery was a laparoscopy, Coyne noted, which is minimally invasive. He recovered quickly, and has noticed no difference in his physical ability, including when he works part-time in construction.

“I feel like a million dollars, and I feel healthy,” he said.

Coyne advocates that more states start living donor registries and routinely ask adults to join, as California has.

In absence of such registries, people interested in making a living donation can learn more from local transplant centers, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. In addition to a kidney, a living donor can give a segment of the liver, a lobe of the lung, a portion of the pancreas and a portion of the intestine, although the last is rare, according to UNOS.

While there are many questions to be seriously considered by one who would be a living donor, Coyne and de la Vega’s story is an inspiration to explore the possibility.

Coyne talks reluctantly about honors and awards he has received since the donation.

“It’s a little embarrassing, but each time it’s an opportunity to educate,” Coyne said. “It’s not about me. This is about how we’re supposed to be as servants of God.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank, of Chicago, a former MWR assistant editor, wrote an earlier story about Coyne and de la Vega, available here