By Christina Harper Special to The Herald
Bill France left Monroe at 4 a.m. Oct. 1 to make his way to Seattle. He was pretty excited about what was going to happen.
At the same time, Mary Swanson was getting ready to receive a gift that had eluded her too many times, something that she and France had both prayed for.
The two Monroe residents were both heading to Swedish Medical Center for separate surgeries, during which two teams of doctors and nurses would take a kidney from France and put it in Swanson.
A few months earlier, France, 66, and Swanson, 46, sat a few rows from each other in their church, Morning Star Lutheran in Monroe.
Swanson had been waiting for a kidney for four years. She had been third in line many times but had never made the top of the list. The dialysis machine with which she spent hours each week cleaning her blood, sat in her Monroe bedroom.
France knew that Swanson had been waiting for a kidney. Her name had been included in prayer many times at their church.
“Then, it didn’t even occur to me to consider being a donor,” France said.
In fact, when a woman in her 40s decided to get tested and see if she could donate a kidney to Swanson, France thought, “My gosh. Someone is going to do this,” he said.
The woman turned out not to be a candidate for kidney donation, and Swanson was back to square one.
“I sat down on the dialysis chair,” Swanson said. “I thought this would never end.”
Within two hours France called. He wanted to be tested.
“I never decided to do it,” France said. “There’s about a half dozen things in my life that I’ve just done, and this was one of them.”
Swanson was dumbfounded. She knew that a live donation, rather than one from a cadaver, would be optimal.
Although Swanson thought that France was in the latter half of his 50s, and he took that as a huge compliment, the truth was that he was in his mid-60s. If a woman in her 40s could not qualify, how could France?
When doctors look at someone in their 60s as a potential living kidney donor, they factor age into many physiological and pathological conditions and come up with a general estimate of kidney function, said Dr. William Marks, director of the organ transplantation program at Swedish Medical Center.
“In this case, he was in excellent shape,” he said.
Marks and his teams of doctors transplant about 100 kidneys a year at Swedish. Almost half of those kidneys come from living donors.
The quality of the kidney is judged on different things. A person with high blood pressure or diabetes might not have an optimal kidney. Others with a history of unhealthy behavior might have good kidneys but still pose a risk.
For donors older than 55 or 60, doctors look at other factors than when the donor is younger.
At the Benevolent Donor Program at Swedish, a significant number of people in the 55-plus age bracket are willing to donate.
“On a national basis, the overall age of donors deceased and living has been increasing,” Marks said.
It might sound odd to some people, but France found the experience of learning if he could be a donor fun and fascinating.
He met with doctors, went through a barrage of tests and was shown how his spleen and intestines would be moved to see the kidney. He got to find out about his health and was looked at from every conceivable angle, he said.
A few weeks later Swanson got the call she had dreamed about.
“I’m OK’d,” France said.
When it came to the risk of the surgery, France felt that driving down to Swedish was more of a risk than the kidney donation.
“A lot of people have said it’s brave. I don’t think it’s brave, particularly. I have no anxiety about it, so it doesn’t require bravery,” France said before the surgery.
France was beyond excited. He considered his role simple: clean up and be there.
Swanson had never been through major surgery. The two saw each other before they went in to give and receive France’s kidney.
At 6 a.m. a priest, a friend of France’s wife, Sarah, came with Swanson into France’s room. They prayed.
“That was a very sweet moment for me,” France said. “A strong communion.”
The two operating rooms were close to each other. Dr. Philip Chapman, chief of the laparoscopic donor program at Swedish Medical Center was in one and Marks in the other.
France’s kidney was taken from his body, preserved with solution and ice, and carried to Swanson’s room.
As France’s kidney was removed, Swanson was waiting to receive it. For her it was day one. France’s team brought it to Swanson’s table. Marks sewed it in.
“The body starts using it right away,” Marks said. “The transplant, the technical part, is short and intense and has to work perfectly.”
France was in Swedish for two or three days. He felt tired and had some minor incision pain.
“I’ve sprained an ankle that hurt more than that,” France said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Swanson spent more time in the hospital because of a drug reaction. She will always take some medication, but dosages will be lowered over time.
She said she often thinks of others, some younger than her, who didn’t make it long enough to get a transplant. There simply are not enough donors to deal with the more than 78,500 people on the organ transplant waiting list in the United States.
The donor and recipient, France and Swanson, have been to church on the same Sundays a couple of times since the transplant almost four months ago and sat on the same bench. A young boy once asked France if he had a hole in him.
France is thankful for the experience, and seeing Swanson feeling good just reinforces that feeling.
With dialysis behind her, Swanson has now passed the three-month benchmark doctors look for. She’s feeling good.
“You get so used to this freedom,” Swanson said. “It’s mostly at night I think, ‘How amazing.’”
Christina Harper is a Snohomish County freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.