March is National Kidney Awareness Month. If you’ve forgotten your biology lessons, the kidneys perform housekeeping duties for the body.

“Provided the kidney function is normal, one kidney can take over the work for both kidneys,” said Barbara O’Neal, nurse transplant coordinator for the Piedmont Transplant Institute in Atlanta. “Kidneys are organs that are integral in removal of wastes and excess fluid from the body. They play a role in control of blood pressure, making red blood cells, bone health, and control of pH levels in the blood.”

When the kidneys fail due to injuries, premature birth, genetic issues or poor health, the body is at risk for other diseases. Strong medical treatment programs are one solution to living with kidney disease. For many people, however, a transplant is the only path to a good quality of life.

The first kidney transplant took place in Boston in 1945. Since then, transplant surgery has come a long way in both technique, length of surgery and length of recovery time.

In response to three very different requests for a kidney, three area women became donors to: a junior high school girlfriend, a male cousin and a complete stranger in another city.

The path to donating is detailed but not long. The wait for a new kidney, however, can be up to 10 years, according to O’Neal.

For more information on how you can donate a kidney, visit unos.org – the United Network for Organ Sharing; piedmont.org/transplant – Piedmont Transplant Institute; or kidneyregistry.org – the National Kidney Registry.

Debbie Wilkerson, left, with her longtime friend Paula Rosen

Debbie Wilkerson, St. Helena: ‘I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t’

By Lynne Cope Hummell

Once she knew she was a match, it never occurred to Debbie Wilkerson to decline to donate a kidney to her childhood friend Paula Rosen. “Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t anyone?” she wondered.

The two have been friends since they were 12, growing up in Fort Worth, Texas. Wilkerson, formerly of Bluffton and Hilton Head Island and now living on St. Helena, knew that Rosen, who still lives in Texas, had kidney issues.

In fact, at least 11 of Rosen’s family members were or are affected by genetic polycystic kidney disease. Her father was the longest living hemo dialysis patient – 17 years – in Texas at the time of his death in 1984, at the age of 64.

When Rosen’s percentage of kidney function got down to single digits three years ago, her doctor urged her to start dialysis, which consumes a grueling eight hours a day for the rest of one’s life. But Rosen said she was “bound and determined to find my own guardian angel” to donate a live kidney. The chances of longevity with a live kidney are much greater than cadaver donations or dialysis, she said.

She put out the word through various channels and, over 18 months, 12 friends tested. Wilkerson wasn’t among them. “I don’t think I grasped the severity of it at first,” she said. As the 12 were eliminated as donors, Wilkerson signed up.

The process of testing required many, many steps, Wilkerson said. “At each step along the way, you either pass or you don’t,” she said. She passed with flying colors.

Surgery was set for June 27, 2018. Wilkerson and Rosen each had her own medical support team and advocate, and each team was focused only on their patient. “They never even talk to one another,” Wilkerson said.

Nearly a year later, both women are thriving. Rosen said she is forever grateful for Wilkerson’s donation. “I was very fortunate … my longtime gracious, loving, giving friend was my match, my guardian angel. She gave me my life back with her unselfish love for me and others.”

Wilkerson downplays her bravery in facing the surgery. “It really wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said. “Any of those people who say that could have somebody need it and they’ll be the one stepping up. I don’t think I know anyone who wouldn’t.”

Cele Seldon with her cousin Dennis Weiss

Cele Seldon, Beaufort: ‘Maybe this is what I was put here to do.’

By Lynne Cope Hummell

In the summer of 2015, Cele Seldon learned in an email that an older cousin was in dire need of a new kidney.

Dan Weiss, who lives in Virginia, had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a child, a disease that often leads to kidney disease. In early 2015, at age 62, his kidneys failed and he was put on dialysis -and given four to five years to live.

“He had emailed family members and asked” if anyone might be willing to undergo testing and possibly donate a kidney, Seldon said. Even his two brothers and his children were not candidates.

She emailed Weiss and asked what would be involved in being a living donor. She discovered that they shared the same rare blood type.

Seldon, who lives in Beaufort, did a lot of research online, by phone, and in conversation with a friend who had been a donor. There was also a fair amount of soul searching. She and her husband Lynn, both of whom are freelance travel journalists, talked a lot about the possibilities, pros and cons.

“I thought at least I should see if I’m compatible,” Seldon said. “I mean, what are the odds?

She began the testing process, and all along the way showed compatibility. “I can’t tell how thorough the testing is,” she said. “I had the physical of all physicals!” One benefit for her, she said, was to learn at age 55 that she was in absolutely excellent health, “neck to knees.”

She was also 100 percent compatible to donate a kidney to her cousin. But first, she said, “I wanted to know if he would be a good steward of my kidney, would he take care of himself.”

When Weiss showed her a spread sheet of his medications, it proved to Seldon that he cared about his health. At some point, she said, “there was a sense of maybe this is what I was put here to do.”

The surgery was scheduled for mid-December 2015. Seldon said she was treated incredibly well in the hospital, and was released five days later.

Weiss spent two weeks in the hospital and came home Dec. 22. He said his new kidney was “A nice Christmas present for a nice Jewish boy.”

After a story about the donation was posted, “I couldn’t believe how many people came forward to had donated or received kidneys,” Seldon said. “The thing about kidneys is you only need one. If you are healthy and have an opportunity to donate one, it’s worth it.”

Suzi Oliver, Bluffton: ‘Caroline Needs a Kidney’

By Gwyneth J. Saunders

When the Facebook post “Caroline Needs a Kidney” showed up on Suzi Oliver’s page, it made an impact.

“She looked like a very young girl and all I was thinking was if one of my kids needed a kidney, I hoped someone would help out,” she said. That someone was Oliver.

On Feb. 13, Caroline Welsh, 26, a much-loved teacher at Tybee Maritime Academy in Savannah, received one of Oliver’s kidneys and as of March 10, everything has gone as expected.

“My kidney is fine! Caroline’s new kidney is kicking butt, and she is happy and smiling,” said Oliver.

Research, prayer and conversations with her husband led her to contact Welsh and Barbara O’Neal, the nurse transplant coordinator at Piedmont Transplant Institute in Atlanta where the surgery was done. Reinforcing her decision to donate was the first-hand knowledge that people can lead long, healthy lives with only one kidney.

“My husband’s mother was in her 80s before she found out she had only one kidney. And she found it as a fluke,” said Oliver. “She fell coming out of a beauty salon and when they X-rayed her, the doctor said, ‘Do you know you only have one kidney?’ She had no idea.”

Welsh, who was on the transplant list for four years, required dialysis three times a day, making it difficult for her to keep teaching. Prior to the operation, Oliver made two trips to Piedmont and underwent a multitude of other tests, including psychiatric evaluations.

“They want to make sure that donors are doing it for the right reason and that there is no ‘buyer’s remorse,'” Oliver said. “For example, they wanted to make sure that, for instance, that if I donated a kidney and it didn’t work, I wouldn’t feel like I wasted a good kidney.”

Oliver said she came off the narcotic pain medicine five days after surgery and was using an over-the-counter pain pill.

“If you saw me now you’d never know I had major surgery nine days ago. The human body amazes me in how fast it can recover,” said Oliver. “It’s amazing how this brings people together. I would never have known them and now I’ve got a whole new family.”