A San Diego couple has become the first husband-and-wife team in the country to donate kidneys to strangers through the National Kidney Donation Registry. And, say the high school sweethearts, their inspiration came from years of being on the receiving end of charitable donations that helped with their own children’s medical needs.
“I hate surgery and I hate medical stuff, so I knew this was going to be challenging, but now I feel more empowered,” Alexis Wesley, 31, tells Yahoo Shine, speaking from her home just three days after having her kidney removed. “And now I know anyone can do this.” Her husband Charles, also 31, donated his kidney last year.
The National Kidney Registry, based in Babylon, New York, was founded in 2007 to match recipients to donors around the country, creating chains of successful donation exchanges. In Alexis's case, her kidney was overnighted to a recipient in New York whose previously appointed donor was found to be incompatible. In turn, that donor gave a kidney to another recipient, in Maryland, whose original donor was also found to be incompatible who then gave a kidney to a recipient in Los Angeles. In total seven recipients were saved by the chain Alexis started.
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“A lot of people who need a kidney and have loved ones in their circle who are willing to donate don’t realize they have other options for an exchange,” Joe Sinacore, director of research and education at the registry, tells Yahoo Shine. “They say, ‘OK, I can’t donate,’ and move on, but they may have already agonized over the decision for hours or even weeks. This is a way to still help.”
But people like the Wesleys are still relatively rare, according to Sinacore. Of the 5,000 people who expressed interest in donating on the registry’s website so far, around 500 made it through the screening process, with 165 making it to the surgery stage.
Charles says he donated his kidney after being prompted by both an article he read about the process and the gratitude he felt over having been on the receiving end of other people's generosity. The Wesleys' daughter, Laelia, 6, was born with the rare arthrogryposis multiplex congenital, or AMC, which affects just one in 3,000 births and is characterized by joints that are unable to bend.
Laelia has endured years of painful physical therapy, castings, and surgeries — much of which were made possible through donations from friends and family, state and federal aid programs, and facilities such as the Ronald McDonald House and Shriners Hospitals for Children, which provide free surgeries.
Laelia's brother, Roland, 3, also has AMC. The family adopted him from Ukraine when he was 22 months old, after learning that there, as in many other countries, physically disabled orphans are confined, by age 5, to adult mental institutions, where most die of neglect within a year.
Both children are now doing well. “We were told both kids would never walk,” says Alexis, who maintains a blog about her family and the children's medical progress. “And both are walking.”
For Charles, the thought of undergoing surgery not only didn't scare him off, it helped him make the decision, Alexis explains. “Surgery became our normal, and recovery became our normal,” she says. “Laelia would look forward to her postsurgery present.”
Still, when Charles first told Alexis about wanting to donate a kidney, she didn’t immediately get why he would purposely go under the knife. “I tried to talk him out of it," she says. "I was under the misconception that it would shorten his life.” But after becoming educated through his first donation consultation, she was in, adding, “I was baffled as to why more people don’t do it.”
The couple waited until after Charles’s surgery to adopt Roland, and Alexis wanted to wait until he was emotionally secure before beginning the rigorous screening process for her own donation.
“It’s to make sure the donor is in good medical condition and will be safe living with one kidney, and also to make sure he or she is psychologically sound,” Tammy Wright, transplant coordinator at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego (where Alexis donated), tells Yahoo Shine. The screening involves meeting with medical professionals, including a psychologist, nephrologist, and nutritionist, and also having lots of blood drawn for tests — which caused a squeamish Alexis to pass out early in the process, she recalls.
The recovery process is relatively quick, Wright says, explaining that donors are usually up and walking around within 12 hours of surgery and are back home within a few days. However, they can’t drive or do any heavy lifting for two weeks, and must have their health regularly monitored for a year. “I have had lots of donors who have gone on to run marathons,” Wright says.
Alexis says the procedure wasn't all that bad. “It was the easiest surgery I’ve done — compared to my C-section, which was hard.” As for the recipient, Alexis says she doesn’t need to meet him or even know anything about him, unless it’s something he would want to do. “If they need to know me, I am available,” she says. But she adds that for her family, doing good in the world is just part of a bigger picture.
“We believe in God, and we feel everything we’ve done that’s good hasn’t been started by us,” she says. “We give life because he gave life to us. It’s a give-back.”
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