This article by Kathleen O'Brien originally appeared in The Star-Ledger.
"Why would you give your kidney to a perfect stranger?"
To this mother-daughter pair, the question, they say, should be, "Why wouldn't you give your kidney to a perfect stranger?"
In the past 17 months, both women became non-direct, or "altruistic," organ donors. Kruse, who lives in Los Angeles, was 39 in June 2012 when she donated one of her kidneys. Harris, from Cedar Knolls, was 70 in May when she donated hers, making her the oldest live kidney donor in the Garden State, according to the nonprofit New Jersey Sharing Network, which arranges organ donations.
With Kruse visiting from California for Thanksgiving this week, the two spoke about their unusual choices — to undergo surgeries that had nothing to do with their own health.
"There are infinite ways you can give to humanity, and that one felt very natural to me," Kruse said.
The idea was planted nearly two decades ago when Kruse was in college and a friend of a friend donated a kidney, but Kruse didn't think about the issue again until a few years ago.
In the past, kidneys were donated one to one, usually on behalf of a relative or close friend, but they had to match blood and tissue type. The only other option was to languish for months or years on a waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor.
The transplant team needed to make sure Kruse wasn’t depressed, unusually impulsive or making a decision she might eventually regret.
HUGS AND TEARS
Before Kruse’s surgery last year, her mother flew to Los Angeles to be with her, hanging out in the hospital waiting room. Normally the relatives of donors and recipients are kept apart, because the emotional dynamics are too unpredictable. In this case, however, Harris overheard a nearby cluster of relatives talking about a young man and a new kidney.
“I don’t mean to intrude, but are you here for someone having kidney surgery?” she asked.
"There are infinite ways you can give to humanity, and that one felt very natural to me."
“Yes, our son,” came the response. “He’s getting a kidney from this wonderful 39-year-old angel who appeared out of nowhere.”
Cue the tears. Once Harris identified herself as the mother of the “angel,” she said, “We all cried and hugged.”
Seeing the difference her daughter’s donation made not only to a 28-year-old recipient who had had kidney problems since infancy but also to his entire family, Harris felt moved to consider donation herself.
“If I’d ever had any doubts,” she said, “those were gone.”
Kruse’s chain was temporarily interrupted when her recipient’s brother had to pull out. An uncle now plans to be a donor.
AGE NOT A PROBLEM
Back in New Jersey, Harris learned age is no obstacle to live donation. A kidney is the one organ that an adult, for instance, can donate to a child. And if a person is healthy enough to donate, and the kidney is healthy, too, doctors will likely approve the transplant.
One way in which an older donor’s donation is different, however: The kidney is usually given to an older recipient.
Harris’ laparoscopic kidney removal took place six months ago at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. She’s been told her recipient, a 64-year-old man, is “doing fine.” So is she.
Kruse and Harris only spent one night in their respective hospitals, and Kruse went back to work a week later. Harris took slightly longer to fully recuperate but says she is completely fine.
Family members were supportive of both mother and daughter. None of Harris’ five children has a medical condition likely to require a new kidney down the road, and Kruse has no children. Apparently all other relatives did not feel that two kidney donations were two too many.
“If it crossed their minds, they didn’t say anything,” Harris said.
As for Kruse, she doesn’t worry about being unable to fill a friend’s need for a kidney, should that happen: “I have to believe they’re going to get it in the way they need it,” she said.
Both women say they have little patience for the “What if?” questions that thwart the impetus of many to donate. That kind of thinking just isn’t in their nature: Heck, this mother and daughter have even gone sky diving together.
Although 2.4 million New Jersey residents have checked off the “organ donor” category on their driver’s licenses, and roughly 36,000 people died in hospitals throughout the state last year, the net result was just 320 organ donations, according to Lernard Freeman, of the New Jersey Sharing Network. So far, Harris’ donation has set off two more transplants in her chain.
Statewide, 4,029 people are still waiting for a new kidney.