I Donated My Kidney to My Dad
I come from a big family in Georgia—I’m one of five kids—and we’ve always all been pretty close. Eight years ago, I was living in New York, trying to make it as a dancer, when a health crisis changed all of our lives forever.
The News That Shocked My Family
When my dad, Dean, was 27, he got strep throat and, unbenknownst to him at the time, it ended up damaging his kidneys. He went more than 20 years without any issues. But when he was in his mid-fifties, he started feeling sluggish, so he visited his doc for a checkup and learned he only had five percent kidney function. My whole family was surprised: He coached soccer and could outrun the high school players, so how could this be possible?
His doctor at the time said his only option was to go on peritoneal dialysis. He had a tube surgically inserted into his abdomen to remove waste from his blood since his kidneys were no longer working. You can live about five to seven years while doing this, and after that you're likely to experience complications. My dad’s doctor explained that sometimes patients died while trying to figure out what their next course of action would be. My dad called me, and we literally had a goodbye conversation. He prepared himself and said he wasn’t sure how this was going to go, but this was the situation.
Why I Decided to Hand Over One of My Kidneys
My siblings and my mom were having a lot of conversations, trying to figure out how to support my dad. One of the things that came up was donation and transplant. But my dad said absolutely not—he didn’t want to endanger any of his children. He’s very opinionated, and we didn’t think he’d change his mind.
But then he switched doctors, and the new doctor told him he needed to start the transplant process immediately. My dad is a rare blood type—O-negative. He’s a universal donor but not a recipient of any other blood types, so it’s really hard to find someone who’s a match.
"My dad called me, and we literally had a goodbye conversation."
At a routine doctor’s appointment, I had my blood taken so I could find out my type. I had a feeling that I would be a match, and it turns out I was also O-negative. I told my mom first, and she wasn’t that excited—she said, “Your dad’s not going to take your kidney.” But if there was something I could do to help him, I wanted to do it. I didn’t tell my dad about my plan until I went home for the holidays that year. When we were all sitting around, I brought it up and said, “Guess who’s O-negative!” I tried to gently and humorously open up the conversation.
The key component to getting my dad to agree to the transplant was getting educated about the process. Obviously, there are risks with any surgery—especially a major one like this—but the gist of the communication we had about transplants is that they wouldn't approve anyone for donation unless they could prove through extensive means of testing that it wouldn't lower your life expentancy in any way in the forseeable future. That's the only thing that got my dad even remotely open to the idea. He had been very against it up until then.
The Process Was More Intense Than I Could’ve Imagined
It basically took around eight months before we went in for surgery. I ended up quitting my job, leaving my boyfriend, and moving back home from New York. It just wasn’t feasible to keep flying back and forth, and I didn’t want my schedule to stand in the way of the approval process.
My dad and I were screened by a whole team of doctors. First, we both had to be deemed healthy enough for the surgery. Fitness had always been a big part of my life since I was a kid, but after graduating college and starting to work full-time, my lifestyle shifted, and I slowly became less active and gained weight. I was about 35 pounds heavier than I normally was, and I knew that BMI was one of the criteria for getting approved as a donor (you can’t be approved if your BMI is too high because it increases your risk of complications).
That was a huge wake-up call—it was the spark that made me realize that I needed to make a change and that my health wasn’t just about vanity. I began to see how connected we all are and that making positive changes in my own life would not only affect my own longevity, but it could directly affect my dad’s as well.
Then, I had to meet with a psychologist. The questioning was really aggressive. They had to make sure I wasn’t being forced or manipulated into my donating my kidney in any way.
I had to sign documents saying I understood that if I ever got pregnant in the future, it would automatically be considered high-risk, even though there’s not much data out there about this being the case for donors. I had to say I understood that I might not live through the procedure. Although that was super-unlikely, it’s very difficult to deal with knowing that’s even a remote possibility. So I reached out to the people I cared about and made sure I connected with them before surgery. I just said, "Hello, I love you, you're important to me, I appreciate you." It was important for me pesonally to know that I had done that.
Leading up to the transplant was a difficult time for my dad emotionally. It was so humbling. He was used to being the one who took care of his kids, and then all of a sudden he had to accept the fact that his kid was going to do something that was very difficult and painful for him. The day of the surgery, we all tried to be as positive as we could. The doctors let my dad and I high-five in our hospital beds before going into the operating room. That’s the last moment I remember.
"Leading up to the transplant, it was a difficult time for my dad emotionally."
My dad recovered much more quickly than I did—it’s always harder for the donor to recover than the recipient, whose health is in such a poor place beforehand that they tend to feel like a million bucks afterward. I had a lot of trouble walking, and I remember not being able to hold a plate. I felt like I wasn’t physically going to be able to go back to my life in New York, so I stayed at home while I recuperated. It took about four months before I started feeling more like myself.
I Found a Career I Love—and Got Closer to My Dad
The doctors were a little bit worried that I was a 24-year-old woman donating to a 50-something man—he's kind of a big guy, so they worried that it might not be the best fit for him, size-wise or volume-wise. The doctors were really excited when they opened me up and saw that I had a monster-size kidney. I don't think they could fully tell how big my kidney was before the surgery, and they wouldn't stop talking about how large it was afterward. That’s a big family joke now.
My dad’s had a couple of minor health issues due to the fact that his immune system has to be suppressed—he has to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life—but overall, he’s doing wonderfully, and he hasn’t had a single kidney issue since the transplant.
When the surgery happened, I was at a difficult place professionally and I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was a dance major in college and had always enjoyed that, but at the time, I was working in fashion sales at Giorgio Armani. After the transplant, while I was recovering in Georgia, I started to focus on what I was eating. As soon as I felt well enough, I began working out consistently five to six days a week. I found classes that I really loved, which made it fun, and over time I saw huge changes.
After attending a total-body scuplting class at a private studio, one of my favorite fitness instructors asked me if I had ever thought about teaching. Although I had studied dancing, I never saw myself as someone that could lead fitness classes—especially because I’d spent the last few years out of shape and not feeling confident. But I was looking for what might be a good next step professionally, and with a little encouragement, I completed my first fitness certification. The instructor whose classes I was taking also taught Zumba, and that's the first certification I got.
When I moved back to New York a few months later, I started working with Tracy Anderson, a celebrity trainer whose clients include Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, and I'm now an instructor at FlyBarre, a ballet barre class. Being able to support my clients, as a personal trainer and fitness instructor, is so incredibly rewarding.
And while it took about four months post-surgery for me to feel strong enough to start working out again, once I did feel up to it, I felt great. I think having a dance background helped—I had already learned to listen to my body and to know what was too much.
Overall, those four months of recovering—and the eight months of rigorous testing I went through before surgery—were well worth it because they meant I got to keep my dad around. My mom, dad, and I call ourselves the pack—we became such a close-knit team while we were all taking care of each other. It’s a crazy thing to think that my organ is in his body—it’s hard to fully take that in, but we definitely have a deeper connection now that’s hard to articulate. Plus, I don’t have to buy him anything for Christmas or his birthday ever again.
Video: I Donated My Kidney to My Dad | This Morning
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