New kidney is the gift of life

Published 11:52 pm Saturday, August 22, 2009

Twenty-seven-year-old Jason Fitzgerald had never really thought about being an organ donor.

He didn’t check the box on his driver’s license application when he turned 16, and he had never really considered the idea since then.

“At 16, you don’t think about all that stuff,” he said this week.

When his friend and “second mother,” 49-year-old Mary Smith told him in November that she had started kidney dialysis and would need a transplant, he didn’t think much about it then, either.

He just said, “I’ll give you mine.”

The next eight months — at least in terms of transplants — were a whirlwind experience of medical and psychological tests and procedures, culminating with a July 7 operation at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where doctors took one of Fitzgerald’s healthy kidneys and used it to replace one of Smith’s failed organs.

On Thursday, the pair visited the hospital’s transplant center for the last in a series of postoperative appointments before being released to go back to work.

Both are healthy, and the operation has been deemed a success, Smith said.

A diabetes patient for 20 years, Smith started dialysis on the day before Thanksgiving.

While talking that week on the phone to Fitzgerald, who has been a family friend since he and Smith’s son played baseball together at Lakeland High School, Smith mentioned her situation, and her friend immediately offered to help.

“I hate to see somebody suffer,” Fitzgerald said Thursday. “If I can help somebody out, save somebody’s life, I will.”

That’s just what he did in Smith’s case.

“It’s truly been a miracle,” Smith said, looking at her friend. “He saved my life, that’s for sure. I’ll never be able to repay him, even if I live to be 100. Getting his kidney changed my life completely.”

Since the operation, Smith’s health has improved radically. Within three weeks, she had lost 65 pounds of fluid weight. She said she could feel the change in her body as soon as she awoke from the surgery.

One of the biggest differences, though, is that she no longer has to go through dialysis. While awaiting the transplant, she had been getting the four-hour treatments three times a week at a facility near Sentara Obici Hospital.

“They were good to me, but I don’t wish dialysis on anybody,” Smith said. “It’s rough.”

Surprisingly, there are some dialysis patients, however, who, for one reason or another, are wary of adding their names to the transplant waiting list.

Smith hopes that her new status as the recipient of a healthy new kidney will put her in a good position to help convince some of those folks to get their names on the list.

“I went back to the dialysis center a couple of weeks ago, just to show them how I was doing,” she said. The social worker there asked her to come back as a motivational speaker.

For his part, Fitzgerald finally has thought about the whole idea of organ donation, and now he’s a big proponent — he’s even filled out his organ donor card.

“I encourage everyone to do it,” he said. “It’s a real good feeling knowing that you saved somebody’s life.”