61st in Line for a Transplant: James’ Story
James and Magan Brown remember going to bed feeling defeated. It started with a phone call around 10:30 p.m. from Lisa Wood, RN, at The University of Vermont Medical Center’s Transplant Surgery Program saying that a possible kidney match had been identified and to be prepared. "You're 61st in line,” James remembers Wood telling him.
"My heart just dropped, and I'm just like, ‘Why in the world are you calling me?’"
The couple went to bed and didn’t give it a second thought. There was no way he would get a kidney. They’d been through this drill before.
James has been on the list to receive a kidney transplant for four years. Since then, his life has been tied to hours of daily dialysis treatments to clean his blood of waste that his kidneys could not, a consequence of lupus – an autoimmune disease he was diagnosed with at 17 years old. The disease manifests in the body’s immune system and attacks healthy tissue and organs, most commonly the kidneys and heart. In James’ case, his kidneys took the worst of it and by age 38 the damage had become life-threatening.
But the need for organs far outnumbers donors and the process to determine which patients are the most in need is complex and fluid. More than 100,000 people in the U.S. need a life-saving transplant, and about 17 people die every day waiting. Although James and Magan hoped he would not be among them, he had gotten used to disappointment. Over the past four years, James had received the same “be prepared” phone call three times. The closest he got was second in line. But a kidney always went to someone else in greater need.
On that night when James was 61st in line, he was abruptly awoken at 3 a.m. to the phone ringing.
"Get here as soon as you can, you're getting transplanted today,” James remembers hearing on the phone.
He couldn’t believe it. His wife woke their two kids, Owen, 5, and Wyatt, 3. Both boys couldn’t remember a day when their father wasn’t sitting in a chair next to a buzzing machine for hours as his blood circulated through tubes. Bleary-eyed, Owen started jumping up and down in his bed cheering, “Dad’s not going to be hooked up to a machine anymore!”
In the rush to leave, they locked the house with the keys still inside, then realized they’d forgotten something. James grabbed a screwdriver from the shed, popped off a window screen, slid open the window and crawled through. Magan cautioned him not to get a scratch that could jeopardize the surgery. An infection, a cold, even a sniffle could potentially postpone a transplant procedure.
The family arrived at UVM Medical Center before sunrise. The kidney arrived several hours later, flown in from Albany, NY. Carlos Marroquin, MD, head of the Transplant Surgery Program at UVM Medical Center, performed the surgery, which went very well.
Days later, he and the Browns were all still shocked by James’ good fortune with the donation.
“It is unusual for a kidney that is in this good condition to go much deeper than the 5th potential candidate,” says Dr. Marroquin.
It turns out, that on the same day of the surgery, a massive snowstorm hit the region. Airlines cancelled flights by the hundreds. When an organ becomes available for transplant, it must get to its patient quickly. For this kidney, that meant air travel.
Although Dr. Marroquin can’t say definitively, he believes that James received his kidney because he was the only patient match close enough to get it in time. Whether the snow, or some other reason, Magan doesn’t care why.
“That day, I felt every emotion possible,” says Magan. “From bawling my eyes out, to real excitement. I couldn't sit still. I feel very grateful, and humbled.”
Magan describes how decades of living with lupus had hit James hard. Aside from the most serious issues with his kidneys, he suffered ligament and tissue injuries – also a symptom of lupus -- and was on dozens of medications to manage a long list of related ailments. He and Magan worried about how much time he might have left. Even though James faces new challenges with the transplant – potential organ rejection being the most serious -- they feel like they’ve gotten a second chance thanks to the generosity of complete stranger.
James and Magan don’t know much about the donor because organ donor information is strictly confidential, even to James’ care team. All they know is that the donor was 51 years old. Magan plans to write a letter of thanks to the family that will be delivered through a social worker.
“I don’t know if there are even the right words to say, but I would thank them from the bottom of my heart for choosing organ donation because it saved my husband’s life,” says Magan. “They gave James a much better life and a chance to watch his kids grow up and become adults.”
Choosing Life, After Death
The need for organ and tissue donations is always great.
When a family decides on a life-saving organ donation, they are offered an Honor Walk, attended by UVM Medical Center staff who line the halls as the donor is wheeled into the operation room for surgery. Many who have given the gift of life through organ donation have been honored in this way, people like Dalton Criss.
“Honoring the fact that this person made a choice, or their family made a choice, to save the lives of others, that should be celebrated,” says Jennifer Demaroney of the Donation and Transplant Service Program at UVM Medical Center.
“This is the legacy that they leave behind and that’s why you see so many staff members show up to an honor walk, to honor and celebrate that. It’s pretty amazing.”