Encourages others to be a “saving grace”
Capt. Kelley McCormick, commander of the local E-13 police station, stood tall at his office door last week, looking healthy and active as he welcomed a visitor. He chatted about his training for this year’s New York City marathon.
Unless you had seen the newspaper headlines earlier this year, you’d have no idea that three months ago McCormick donated a kidney to his wife Kim—a dramatic life-saving gift that he brushes aside with a joke: “I couldn’t think of anything else to give her for Valentine’s Day.”
But McCormick is serious about the need for organ donors and has become a strong advocate for the cause—and living proof that you can save a life while living a full and healthy one yourself.
“There are a lot of people who can be donors and don’t know it,” McCormick said in an exclusive Gazette interview at his office. For one of the 89,000 people on transplant waiting lists, he said, “You may literally be their saving grace.”
And for those who do choose to donate, McCormick has written a light-hearted how-to guide called “Donations for Dummies” that he hopes to turn into a full-fledged book.
McCormick was once one of those people who didn’t know he could be a donor.
“I ended up becoming involved in the issue of transplants and organ donation because my wife had a very fluke condition that caused her kidneys to be destroyed,” he said.
About nine years ago, Kim received a kidney donated by her sister. But recently she experienced “donor failure,” a still-mysterious condition where a transplanted organ gradually stops functioning.
Kim faced two alternatives: another transplant, or lifelong dialysis. “There’s no vacation from dialysis,” McCormick said, explaining why they wanted to avoid it.
McCormick began contacting family members as possible donors. Then he realized, “If I’m asking other people, I should be tested, too, just to make sure.”
The first test is a simple blood sample mixed with the recipient’s to see if there’s any mutual rejection. When that showed that their blood samples “don’t fight each other, basically,” a more complex test followed.
Doctors then told McCormick, “‘You’re not going to believe it. You’re a perfect match.’”
McCormick’s response: “Let’s do it tomorrow.”
Of course, it took a lot longer than that. There was more blood work and testing. There were meetings with a psychologist and social worker about the stresses to come. There was the transplant conference at the hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, to decide whether Kim was a good recipient for a donation.
“February 20th at Beth Israel, we went in and got it done,” McCormick said with typical understatement.
He and Kim were operated on simultaneously, with one of his kidneys removed and immediately placed into her.
“It’s not Jiffy Lube,” McCormick jokes about the operation. “It is major surgery.”
But kidney donation no longer requires the extremely invasive surgery it once did. It is now laparoscopic, done through relatively small incisions, with surgeons viewing their work with tiny cameras. Other types of organ donation involve more significant surgery.
For McCormick, the surgery involved an incision about three inches long on his upper abdomen, and two smaller incisions on his side.
He spent five days and four nights in the hospital. “Three weeks after the surgery, I ran a 10K road race,” he said.
“I pushed it a little,” he acknowledged, but said he got an OK from his doctors. “They tell you, ‘Don’t take up bullfighting or parachuting right after,’” he joked.
Kim is also doing well, he said. “She is basically out there living a full life, chasing a five-year-old around,” he said, referring to their rambunctious young son.
Besides the time it takes for the remaining kidney to adjust and the body to heal, McCormick said, there are no other health impacts involved in kidney donation, including no dietary restrictions.
McCormick, known as an active and hands-on commander who is often on the scene of major arrests, was back on the job five weeks after the surgery.
How to donate
There are two basic categories of organ and tissue donation. The more familiar one may be posthumous donation—the kind people have in mind when they have the “organ donor” logo applied to their driver’s licenses.
“That’s the ‘getting something out of tragedy’ donation,” McCormick said.
A wide variety of organs and tissue can be recovered from dead donors. But donating isn’t as simple as getting that logo on the driver’s license, McCormick said—hospitals won’t accept donations on that basis alone.
“We lose a lot of organs like that,” McCormick said. “People have to let family and friends know you’re an organ donor.”
The surest way is through a living will that states that you want to become an organ donor after death.
Less common are living donors like McCormick. According to the donation organization Donate Life America, living donors can give kidneys and portions of their liver, lung, intestines or pancreas. Some types of tissue can be donated as well, such as bone marrow.
There are psychological and economic obstacles that keep people from donating, McCormick acknowledged.
There’s the “fear factor hurdle. ‘I like all my pieces and I want to keep them,’” he said. And even more simply, “It’s going to hurt.”
Creating a living will can be stressful for many people. “Being an organ donor is like accepting your mortality,” McCormick said.
There are also real and perceived economic challenges. McCormick said that most people don’t realize that the government and the recipient’s insurance company will cover virtually all of the donor’s medical expenses, except possibly a small co-pay for medicine.
But missing work can be a big obstacle. Fortunately for McCormick, Massachusetts law allows city and state employees to take 30 days of paid leave to be organ donors. He was out for about 20 working days. For someone privately employed, that might not be an option.
Against all of those hardships stands the knowledge that the donor has saved another person’s life.
“I think the satisfaction of doing it is a powerful motivator,” McCormick said.
For donors like McCormick, the decision is relatively easy: “It’s my wife,” he said. Others become “stranger donors,” simply volunteering an organ or tissue to the general pool.
Hospitals can also arrange an unusual mix of the two types of donations. Say you have a friend or family member who needs an organ, and you’re willing to donate. But it turns out you’re not a match. A hospital can sometimes pair you with another donor in the same situation—where you match their loved one, and they match yours. You then “exchange” donations, saving both of your recipients.
“I call it an ‘around the horn’ donation,” McCormick said, adding that he’s heard of three-way donations by this matching method.
Deciding to become a donor is probably the largest hurdle. But donors still face sometimes unexpected challenges and logistical issues, McCormick said.
McCormick said he found talking with other donors to be a “huge help,” including the wife of a fellow officer who had donated an organ to her sister.
But when he searched for a book for more advice, he said, most of them leaned toward the medical and technical. To help formulate his own thoughts and strategies, he started writing one himself, the “Donations for Dummies: An Irreverent Guide to Doing the Right Thing.”
It’s now a seven-page brief guide that McCormick adds to regularly and has given to the National Kidney Foundation for use by prospective donors.
Among the unexpected challenges he addresses is the barrage of questions he categorizes as, “The Good, The Bad and The Silly.”
“People will question you on it,” he said. “Most of the questions are excellent…Some of it just becomes very tiring. You have to [become] an educator if you’re going to do this.”
Some of the toughest and most poignant questions can come from children. In the guide, McCormick recalls his son asking, “Why’s Mommy’s [kidney] broked but yours isn’t?” He also notes that he took the wise course of letting Kim answer the question.
McCormick also became an expert in recovery issues, with both he and his wife healing while having a young son and three dogs to take care of.
One of the issues he raises is dealing with the army of friends and family who will want to help you—so much so they can become a burden.
“Does it turn you into the patient or the host?” McCormick said, adding that it can be especially tough when your would-be helpers don’t get along with each other.
“Refereeing a battle royale on the front lawn should not be on your list of things to do,” he jokes in the guide.
He advises creating a schedule of helper visits, and suggestions on how to explain the situation to children. For example, he and Kim provided their son with a toy medical kit to “assist” in their recovery.
For general information on organ and tissue donation, see the Donate Life America web site at www.shareyourlife.org. McCormick works regularly with the National Kidney Foundation at www.kidney.org or 1-800-622-9010.