After 32 years with a transplanted kidney, Farmington Hills resident Deborah Smith is once again waiting for a phone call that will save her life.
Smith, who was diagnosed at 27 with kidney failure, has already undergone two transplant surgeries. The first kidney only worked for a few days before it had to be removed, and it took two years to find another one. Since then, she has spent 32 years free from dialysis, a painstaking procedure that cleans the blood until a donor organ is found.
"This is very old for a transplanted kidney," she said, especially since the donor was not a blood relative. "The last several years, it's been showing a decline (in function), and recently, showing enough decline that I need another."
The first time she was on the waiting list just a few days.
"Now, they say the list can be anywhere from two to five years," Smith said. "There's more demand and less supply."
Smith is among 2,500 people in Michigan awaiting a kidney, according to Dr. Shakir Hussein, of Dearborn. The transplant surgeon at Detroit Medical Center's Harper University Hospital said there are not enough living or deceased donors and that is why it's crucial to spread the word about the need and not just during April, which is designated as organ donation month.
"Having the red heart on the driver's license is one thing," he said, referring to the universal symbol for organ donors. But Hussein said it is also important for people to share their wishes to donate with their families so there will be no confusion when it comes time for them to donate.
Donated organs save lives
For now, Smith's kidney is functioning enough so that she doesn't have to start dialysis. The process of filtering her blood requires sitting for several hours three times a week, and in between, carefully watching her diet and fluid intake, because her kidney isn't cleaning her blood or eliminating urine.
"When you're on dialysis, you're pretty much tied to your home area," she said. "With a transplant, you can do anything."
And Smith has. She has retired after 40 years in the banking industry, and now enjoys gardening, going to the gym, taking tai chi classes and traveling with her husband, Bill, to property they own in Kentucky.
Once she goes back on dialysis, travel is out. Smith said the kidneys do a lot that people don't realize, like producing a hormone needed to produce red blood cells. People on dialysis often suffer from anemia and fatigue as a result. "Your whole lifestyle changes," Smith said.
While on the list, "you're kind of always in limbo. You're kind of always wondering," she said.
And the only way to shorten the list is for more people to sign up as organ donors.
The good news, Hussein said, is that new technology no longer requires people to be a perfect match. He said a "paired kidney exchange" allows for a bigger pool of candidates who don't have to be a blood or antibody match.
"Although (donation) is psychologically and physically difficult, it really is a precious gift, Hussein said. "It saves lives."
Smith says she's a living testament to that.
"I obviously wouldn't be here if someone hadn't donated," she said. "I would not be enjoying the life I've had for 32 years if I didn't have that."
To learn more about organ donation, visit the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.