April is National Donate Life Month. It was established in 2003 to raise awareness about donation, encourage individuals to register as organ donors and to honor those that have saved lives through the gift of donation.
Today, we honor our own associate Victoria Threadgould. Victoria is the Director of Grants with The Seton Fund and has been with the Ascension Texas Foundation’s team for just over six months.
Earlier this year, Ascension Seton opened the new Adult Abdominal Transplant Center at Dell Seton Medical Center Austin. On February 22, Dell Seton performed its first living donor kidney transplant. Just two days later, the transplant team was back in the OR performing another first–the first altruistic donor surgery. Victoria was the first donor at the Center to choose to donate one of her kidneys to a nondirected recipient through the National Kidney Registry, meaning she did not know the person who would receive her kidney.
Victoria tells her story:
My kidney journey started a year ago. I was hiking with my husband in a Texas State Park, and I said to him, “I want to help people. I want to use my health and fitness to help people. I’m thinking about donating a kidney, or at least learning about how to become a living kidney donor.”
He was a bit puzzled as we don’t know anyone with chronic kidney disease or anyone on dialysis. After listening to a podcast several years ago, I knew many people had kidney failure, and their best chance for survival was a transplant. I knew the wait list was incredibly long, and people die every year waiting on the transplant list. While waiting, they are hooked up to a dialysis machine several times a week, for several hours. Not an ideal quality of life – when compared to my freedom and ability to hike in the glorious Texas Parks. I value health and fitness – we run, ride our bikes, I practice and teach Pilates. We participate in local races – and even win some too! I take care of myself – love eating kale salads and getting 8 hours sleep a night! My question to myself was: How can I use my health and body to help others?
The answer: The National Kidney Registry (NKR). I registered on the NKR site in the spring, did a load of research on the National Kidney Foundation site, and I talked with a Living Kidney Donor, from the National Kidney Donation Organization. The Living Donor told me about her experience – why she donated, her process, and recovery. She also mentioned a Kidney Donor Athlete Group. This got me thinking: If people can live with one kidney and be athletes, I could do that too!
By not being linked to a specific kidney recipient, I was able to set my own timeline. This worked out well as I’d gotten a place as a charity runner for the Chicago Marathon in October. I trained throughout the Texas summer (not pleasant) and raised money for a cancer nonprofit. Then in November, I wanted to take the Grant Professionals Certification (GPC) Exam – I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship to cover exam fees so didn’t want to pass up this opportunity.
Also in November, the Ascension Seton Abdominal Transplant Center opened. I gave them a call to see what they were doing. I expressed my interest in becoming a living kidney donor – something along the lines of “I’d like to donate a kidney.” To which they replied “Sure, fill out this form and fax it back to us.” Overcoming the fact that I didn’t have a fax machine, I scanned and emailed my completed form. This then kick-started the whole physical and mental medical process/evaluation. After doing some initial tests (urine and blood) and discussing my medical history with the transplant coordinator, followed by more urine and blood collection, my husband and I met with several members of the Abdominal Transplant team, including the transplant coordinator, social worker, nurse practitioner, kidney doctor, surgeon, dietician, pharmacist, financial counselor, independent living donor advocate! This was followed by more urine and blood collection, an EKG, a chest x-ray, and a CAT scan of my pelvis! The whole team was very knowledgeable, supportive, and thorough.
At the end of 2021, the Abdominal Transplant Center approved me to be a living kidney donor. I received a letter in the mail with words to the effect of “Congratulations! Your kidney is fabulous!” I was so happy. The letter arrived at a similar time to my GPC exam results. All great news to end 2021.
In the New Year, the transplant team then got to work with the staff at NKR – setting me up in their database, activating my profile, and waiting to get matched. It wasn’t long till I got a call to say a lady in New York would be getting my left kidney! NKR took more blood and sent it to the New York hospital – just to be sure. My surgery date was then set for Thursday, February 24th at 6.00am. Cue the logistics of planning to get a kidney out of me in Austin and transplanting it into someone in New York on the same day.
I had a pre-op consult with the Transplant team at Dell Seton Medical Center the week before – more blood and urine collection, an EKG and a chest x-ray. I met once again with all the amazing staff who spoke again about the surgery and the recovery – a nice refresher to what we discussed at our initial evaluation meeting. Everyone was excited and looking forward to the big day.
My alarm went off on Feb 24th at 4am. Similar to a race day, bright and early, I was anxious and excited. We arrived at Dell Seton at 5am, and just before 6am I was being wheeled down the corridor where everyone clapped and cheered. I got to ring the living donor bell before entering the OR. Whether it was the early start, or the sedative I received, I don’t remember anything else until I woke up around 9.40am. I had a conversation with Dr. Turgeon who told me everything went well. My husband was by my side as they then transferred me to the 4th floor. I stayed at Dell Seton until I was discharged on Saturday afternoon. The nursing staff took great care of me, especially in those first 24 hours where I couldn’t move from my bed. My husband brought me tea each morning and held my arm as I started to take slow walks around the 4th floor. The transplant team kept checking in on me, and I even had a visit from Yeti – the Ascension Seton therapy dog!
The following two weeks at home were quite uncomfortable – mainly from the bloating and gas (just like eating too many cheese and bean burritos!). During the surgery, my abdomen was inflated and so it took several days for the gas to slowly dissipate. I was able to work from home and take slow, short walks around my neighborhood. I also enjoyed doing some puzzles, as well as crocheting kidneys for the transplant team.
At my two week check up (on World Kidney Day, March 10th), Dr Turgeon was happy with my recovery and healing. She allowed me to try some gentle indoor cycling which I’ve been enjoying while watching Netflix shows. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started to get back into running (more like a jogging pace) and I’m back at the Pilates studio – teaching classes, but not practicing/demonstrating.
I’ve heard from my recipient who is doing well. My left kidney made it to New York and the transplant was a success. She’s recovering nicely and so is her mother – who donated her kidney to a recipient in Baltimore! It’s been wonderful to exchange emails and some photos. We hope to meet up at some point in the future.
Being part of NKR’s paired exchange donation program meant my kidney went go to a recipient and in turn, their kidney donor (someone who wasn’t a direct match to them) would donate to another recipient, and so on and so forth. In total, I believe I was part of a chain where four people all received kidneys from donors. It also meant that at some point, the Abdominal Transplant Center would receive a kidney from NKR to be able to transplant to a person living in Austin.
It’s great to be part of something that is bigger than me and my kidney. I’m so glad I’ve done this journey, and I hope I can share my story with others and inspire them to become living kidney donors.
Victoria’s altruistic or non-directed donation, is a rare but increasingly popular form of living organ donation that allows healthy people to help improve and save the lives of patients living with kidney failure. Thank you to Victoria for her incredible bravery and selfless act to put others before herself. And gratitude to her husband Michael Threadgould, Director of Digital at Ascension Texas Foundations, for providing her unconditional support during her organ donation journey.