Five years ago, my family ate Thanksgiving dinner in a hospital cafeteria. I honestly don’t remember if turkey was served. It probably was. But food was far from our top priority that day.
On Thanksgiving in 2007, my mother had a kidney transplant. It put a whole new meaning on a holiday already dedicated to gratitude.
My mom, Jerrie, was 55 years old when her life started slowing down drastically. She’d had only one functioning kidney since infancy, but one is really all a person needs.
My mom, Jerrie, was 55 years old when her life started slowing down drastically.
Early signs of trouble
My mom has always been a free spirit. So when she started sleeping until noon, we all took it as another endearing part of her unconventional personality.
This is a woman who let me wear my pajamas to elementary school and would corral our entire family to play pranks. If any middle-aged mom would sleep later than her college-aged daughter, it would be mine.
Jerrie figured fatigue was part of getting old. After all, she saw a kidney specialist every year; if there were something wrong with it, we’d know.
In a piece of the puzzle my family still doesn’t fully understand, my mom’s nephrologist missed the slow decline of her one functioning kidney. He routinely treated her symptoms — high blood pressure, exhaustion, frequent urination — but never found a cause.
By the time we realized what was happening, Jerrie was just months away from total kidney failure and dialysis. Our family went into shock.
My mom figured chronic fatigue was part of getting old.
Preparing for the worst
How could a peppy mother of three and former pharmaceutical sales representative, be reduced to a life largely spent in a hospital bed — or worse — an untimely death?
In the 21st century, in the most developed country in the world, surely this wasn’t the end. As much as we didn’t want to believe that death was on the table, we had to find a way to grapple with the possibility without losing hope.
Although there is a national list to receive organs from cadavers, the average wait is three years. We didn’t have that long. Those who enter dialysis before a transplant have a lower success rate and often suffer other organ failures.
A wonderful surprise
The best option was to find a living kidney donor for my mom. Somehow or another, every relative was eliminated from the donor pool, as were close friends.
In a piece of the puzzle my family still doesn’t fully understand, my mom’s nephrologist missed the slow decline of her kidney.
The most surprising and wonderful part of this whole ordeal is that instead of our family losing a member, we’ve gained two.
A neighbor we’d lost touch with over the years ended up being a near-perfect match for my mom.
In a move of complete altruism, Terry Whitehill offered to donate her kidney. Now, Terry and her husband, Don, couldn’t be a more important part of our family.
The Whitehills are sadly no strangers to the pain of premature death. Their son, Mark, died when he was 30; Terry’s brother died at 54, and her father passed away at 56.
“Neither of them got to see their children graduate, get married or have grandchildren,” Terry said. “Don never questioned my decision. He understood the importance of someone else having a chance to do all those things.”
On October 16, 2007, coincidentally her 56th birthday, my mother updated her will and signed power of attorney papers before heading into an operation to examine her failing kidney one more time.
Instead of our family losing a member, we’ve gained two.
Her health was still declining, and with a suitable living donor identified, Jerrie’s name was moved higher on the operation schedule. She would have her life-saving surgery on Thanksgiving.
As they say, the rest is history. But to us, it’s also a miracle.
My mom cheered when I graduated from Baylor in 2008, and we giggled together as she helped me into my wedding dress two years later. This summer, she and my dad welcomed their first grandchild.
Ordinary milestones take on new meaning when you realize they almost never happened.
This Thanksgiving, I’m incredibly grateful to not know what it’s like to lose a parent.