The Gift of Herself

Dialysis nurses see their patient fight kidney disease every day. It must cross their minds, what else can I do? Rather than simply offering education or encouragement, Joanne Smith, RN, home therapy program manager for Brandywine Valley at Fresenius Medical Care stepped up and gave a needy patient part of herself. She donated a kidney.

The lucky patient, Terry Sukeena, was diagnosed with kidney cancer eight years ago. Scans at the time found he was born with only one kidney. Once the cancerous kidney was removed, Sukeena needed immediate dialysis. He started doing in-patient treatments then switched to home-based hemodialysis.

As manager for all home program in Northern Delaware, Smith gets to know a lot of people through her job, including Sukeena. He is a champion for his fellow dialysis patients, telling newcomers to the center what to expect and answering their questions about the procedure. Smith remarked, “Kidney disease does not attack one particular group.”

Smith also educates patients on treatment options for kidney disease with Dialysis Patient Citizens. “The gold standard is kidney donation.” There is an estimated seven-to-ten-year mortality rate for dialysis patients, so getting on that donation list is imperative.

SEE ALSO: Earn CE: Organ and Tissue Donation

Opening Her Mind
Sukeena’s wife and sister-in-law were both worked up as possible donors, but neither one was eligible due to a risk that might jeopardize their health. One day, Smith realized there could be another option. As she tells it, “I was standing in church, and God put Terry’s name on my heart. I said, of course!”

That of course, was, of course I can donate a kidney. She contacted Christiana Care Kidney Transplant Program and went through the physical and psychological battery of tests needed to be approved. When the results came back that she was healthy and an ideal donor for Sukeena, the plan was set in motion.

Smith recalls that Sukeena’s wife, Pam, was ecstatic, but Sukeena himself, initially more concerned for his nurse’s health than his own welfare, hesitated on accepting the offer. Smith told him, “I’m healthy enough, I can give a kidney. Either you take it or someone else will get it.”

He was convinced and in August 2015 and the two went into Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del. for the operation. Smith recalled, “I was not nervous at all. I felt God brought me to it and He would bring me through it.

From Nurse to Patient
“I had never had surgery before and didn’t know what to expect,” said Smith. She got to see healthcare from the other side of the bed. “It was very eye-opening.” Smith continued, “A lot of times nurses are task-oriented but we need to think beyond that.” For example, after nurses came in to take her vital signs, she couldn’t reach the water on the nightstand because they didn’t return the bedside table close enough for her to reach it.

Another time, a nurse gave her a basin and told her she could clean up, so Smith got out of bed, rolled her IV stand into the bathroom and took a shower. Later, a doctor on rounds wondered why Smith’s hair was wet. The doctor was surprised Smith had taken a shower since getting out of bed at that time was not allowed. The nurse had meant Smith could clean herself up with a sponge and the basin, but that was not made clear.

Joanne Smith with her granddaughter, before she made the decision to become an organ donor.

Despite the snafu, it was a smooth process in the hospital. She spent four days there and was on IV pain medications for two of them. When she was discharged home, Smith didn’t even feel the need for the prescription pain meds. She was off for five weeks, but felt ready to go back to work after just two. Her doctors urged her to rest and take care of herself, advice she didn’t completely follow through on. Smith began walking her dogs two weeks after surgery. Being that active so soon was a no-no, and she got a hernia on her left side near the incision site. She encourages future kidney donors to “follow the doctors’ orders to take care of themselves and not jump back too quickly into their daily activities even if they feel up to it.


Lifesavers Needed
“We need more people to be open to donation,” Smith said. “God gave us two kidneys and for the most part, we can live with one.” It’s estimated by 2020, one million Americans will need dialysis because high blood pressure and diabetes rates are increasing and these are the top two disease processes that cause kidney disease. She fears there will not be enough dialysis nurses and facilities to handle that demand.

She also works to educate lawmakers as the Delaware chapter of the American Nephrology Nurses Association’s health policy representative. For example, Medicare covers the cost of post-transplant medications for only three years, a stat the association is fighting to change. Once a kidney recipient goes off those medications, he or she will need to re-start costly dialysis treatments because the transplanted kidney will fail without those medications. There is a very good chance those costs will be borne by the government as Medicare and Medicaid cover the majority of dialysis treatments.

Smith’s case proves you don’t need to limit donations to family members. “People need to be creative. If you need a donation, put it on Facebook,” she suggested. If you’d like to donate, reach out to your local transplant center for more information.

As for Sukeena, “He got his kidney and his life back. He’s doing great and I’m doing great.”

Danielle Bullen is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: [email protected].

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