Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Blog: The Gift of Life

Guest Blogger: Jessica Traskey, previous Johns Hopkins patient & a networking colleague of Pamela Paulk

There are few incidents in life which can give you instantaneous goosebumps.

Pamela is a member of the board for a nonprofit at which I work in Baltimore. She has served for a number of years and it was not until awhile ago that I stopped her after one of our meetings. I wanted to let her know how happy I was with the excellent care and fast treatment I was getting from doctors at Johns Hopkins.
I have had a kidney transplant.

I will not forget the brief exchange that we had at that time. I explained my situation and history, Pamela appeared in awe, and immediately said something along the lines of, “Well should you ever need another let me know.” There was something in her delivery of that sentence that I believed.

Time moved on, and at a board meeting in September last year, she beckoned me to a corner of the room and said, “I have some news to tell you.” Then she announced with a light in her eye that she had made the decision to donate one of her kidneys and that the process was in the works.

Her telling me this gave me the instant goosebumps and, amazing even myself, I was filled with tears. I felt completely overwhelmed, in a positive way. It reminded me of the life-changing changes that someone was about to experience. It reminded me that for someone an end was coming to many complications. It reminded me of the second opportunity of life that someone was to be given.

Jessica's Story
We can survive on one kidney. I do, and have been surviving on a transplanted kidney for 24 years. Yes, I as a recipient take medication daily, and suffer some minor hurdles now – which are closely monitored – mainly due to the two decades of taking the immune suppressant (anti-rejection) drugs. Yet I will be first to holler from the rooftops that life now compared to pre-transplant days is so much better, and at last leaps and bounds away from the illness and weakness that preceded the life-changing surgery.

The Diagnosis

I was two and a half when I first showed signs of repetitive illness, which largely came in the form of excruciating bladder infections. There were years of appointments and visits to and from local hospitals in southwest England, which was home. And, it wasn’t until a family visit to Baltimore in 1981 to spend an Easter holiday with my father's family that I was struck with an infection again. As always, they would hit in the middle of the night, and my parents and brother became all too familiar with the cries of pain that would wake them.

I was taken to Hopkins Hospital. Over a two-week in-patient stay the hospital did every possible test under the sun. The Hopkins doctors did not know me, my history or my insides from Adam, and under the superb care of a Dr. Robert Jeffs (who died in the last year) the picture was clear to him and his team. There was no doubt about it; my kidneys would indeed fail in time and I would need a kidney transplant. There was a double whammy, though: my bladder was causing dramatic reflux and infection, and so would need reconstructive work before I could receive a transplant.

On my return to England I was sent to Guy’s Hospital in London, a high flying city (training) hospital, which seemed leagues ahead of the rural town hospitals that we had been used to nearer home in Dorset. I had excellent pediatric care at Guy’s. In time I was under the care of a urologist, Tony Mundy. He made clear what he wanted to do, and that I would be the first pediatric patient in Europe to have this particular bladder reconstruction, to which a transplanted kidney could be hooked up at a later date. In 1984, my bladder was partially reconstructed from part of my cecum. I was 12 years old. The recovery was long and there was the added difficulty of having to learn to catheterize.

It was in February 1985 that my kidneys finally packed up and I was put on hemodialysis. My mother and I had to live in London five days a week, while my father and brother remained in Dorset – two and a half hours away by train. It was an awful strain all round, although I am sure that (at 12) I was oblivious to their own dealings with the situation.

Brother & Sister

A kidney became available for me in August 1985. I had gone on a ‘Dialysis Holiday’ with the pediatric unit, my parents had been ‘sent away’ for a break of their own and were in France, and I think my brother was staying with friends.

There were 12 of us dialysis children on the holiday with a number of nurses. We were in a caravan park on the Kent coast, and would get the train up to London every other evening for dialysis through the night before, and returning to the park the following morning to get back to our fun fair, beach, and crazy golf-filled holiday.

Over the first few days I think four children were called back to London for kidneys. It was an unreal thing because I just remember that we, as children, were elated for our fellow dialysis buddies. They were being called back to Guy's to get their kidneys. A couple more days passed, and another two were called. By then the rest of us were wondering, “Who’ll be next?”

Then within a few hours a boy called James and I were called – matches had been found. It was an extraordinary time, and even the nurses and doctors were amazed by the sudden availability of donor kidneys that month. It was unusual and rare. James and I were accompanied back to London on the train by a nurse, my parents were called back from France, and James and I were reunited with our parents prior to the surgery due the following morning.

Much is a blur, yet some memories are as fresh as yesterday. James and I became ”kidney” brother and sister. We both had a kidney from the same cadaver - in the 1980s receiving a kidney from a live donor was, I think, very rare - and through surgery and recovery we were toe to toe in ICU rooms; our bond seemed destined to last forever. But it was a tough few weeks following. My kidney needed a jump start with some dialysis, and I was still getting bladder infections. James, who had other complications, unfortunately died of septicemia. It was an awful time, and very scary for a 12-year-old.

New Life

I am a kidney transplant patient. I was fortunate to receive a kidney. The donor was a young man, — a son, a brother, a grandchild — who was killed in a motorcycle accident. His family made the decision to donate so that I and others could live. I owe it to that family to look after this kidney for as long and as best I can.

To receive a live donation is also a staggering privilege and honor. That someone makes the decision to give a part of themselves so that another can be free of debilitating illness, a life led by machines, and separation from family and friends, is an almost incomprehensible gift.

Now, nearly 24 years on, I’m living in the U.S. and leading a productive life, thanks to that gift and to the doctors at Hopkins and elsewhere who monitor my progress.

The Gift of Life

Pamela’s decision and her journey really begins this week. She will be giving someone a second chance at life, and that person will have the very special honor of saying that they know their donor. Above all, may others understand and be inspired by this extraordinary, selfless gift of life.


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