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Friendship leads to donating a kidney

Monroe woman decides to offer her kidney as an anonymous act

  • Melissa Keating (right), of Monroe, offered to donate a kidney to her friend, Jill Hankins (left). Eventually Hankins found out she didn't need the tr...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Melissa Keating (right), of Monroe, offered to donate a kidney to her friend, Jill Hankins (left). Eventually Hankins found out she didn't need the transplant, but Keating later chose to donate a kidney to an unknown recipient anyway.

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  • Melissa Keating (right), of Monroe, offered to donate a kidney to her friend, Jill Hankins (left). Eventually Hankins found out she didn't need the tr...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Melissa Keating (right), of Monroe, offered to donate a kidney to her friend, Jill Hankins (left). Eventually Hankins found out she didn't need the transplant, but Keating later chose to donate a kidney to an unknown recipient anyway.

MONROE — Some friends tried to talk her out of it.
Others called it just plain crazy.
What could possibly motivate Melissa Keating to donate a kidney — to someone she didn't even know?
Keating doesn't have a simple answer.
But the topic first came up about two-and-a-half years ago, as a result of her friendship with Jill Hankins.
Hankins, who was 41 at the time and an avid runner, had just been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary problem that causes clusters of fluid-filled cysts to develop in the kidneys. Her father had died of it in 2006, while awaiting a transplant.
It causes kidney failure in about half of people with the most common type of the disease.
“I'd done some research on this disease,” Hankins said. All she could think was: “I have a daughter I still need to raise.”
Hankins looked at Keating, still fearful from her diagnosis and the prospects she faced.
“Would you give me your kidney?” she asked. Chuckling about it now she says, “It was like, ‘Would you loan me your car?'”
Keating thought for a second. “Yeah, sure,” she responded.
“OK, fine,” Hankins thought. “I've got a kidney in the bag.”
Keating now admits she was really thinking: “Give away a kidney? Are you nuts?”
It turned out, though, that Hankins didn't need a kidney transplant. “No need for a kidney, at least not right now,” she said. “I'm healthy and blessed.”
Two years passed. One day Keating said she had something she needed to tell Hankins.
“I've been investigating how to become a kidney donor,” she said.
Hankins said she got goose bumps, knowing what it would mean to a patient sickened with kidney disease.
“I was so excited for someone to get that gift of life ... for someone else to be getting a kidney,” she said.
Hankins then remembers her friend giving her a there's-something-else-I-need-to-tell-you look.
“I have to be honest,” Keating began. “You know I said I'd give you a kidney two-and-a-half years ago? I wasn't serious. It's not something you should just say, ‘Yeah, sure,' to.”
So why did the idea of being a kidney donor arise again, after Keating had quietly dismissed it more than two years before?
In the spring, Keating, 52, read an article describing a different kind of kidney transplant. Not one made by a family member to a family member or a donation made to a friend. It was a donation to a complete stranger, someone who would be anonymous and had the choice to never disclose his or her identity to the donor.
“It was like an epiphany,” said Keating, who works as office manager for the Monroe painting business owned by her husband. “Without any kind of doubts, I knew I was going to do it.”
Even though it was Hankins' question that had got her thinking about giving away a kidney, Keating said she isn't concerned about giving her kidney to someone other than Hankins.
In part, that was because Hankins condition had stabilized through lifestyle changes, including improved diet.
But another factor was that Keating was ready and in good health, factors that made her a near-perfect donor.
“You don't know what will happen in the future,” she said. “The opportunity is here. I might as well take it.”
Keating contacted the University of Washington, where 110 kidney transplants have been conducted so far this year. The number of volunteers for an anonymous, or so-called non-directed kidney donation, is a tiny fraction of those procedures.
Just four of such surgeries have occurred at the UW in 2010, said Dr. Connie Davis, director of kidney care and transplant services at UW Medical Center.
Keating faced a volley of questions about her health and a series of medical tests, such as a scan of her kidney.
“The whole time they said, ‘You can back out whenever you want,'” she said. “There was no pressure.”
Keating's determination never wavered, telling them: “I want to do this.”
But like her friends, the medical people, too, focused on the question: Why?
They wanted her to understand exactly what she would face with the surgery and her recovery. They also wanted to ensure that neither Keating nor any other donors have expectations of the person receiving the kidney — that they wouldn't ask for money or assume that the recipient would contact them once he or she recovered.
In August, Keating was given the final go-ahead for donation. The surgery was set for Oct. 27. Keating arrived at the medical center at 6:15 a.m. Even as final preparations were under way, she said she felt no nervousness or fear.
“It was just, I could do this and save someone's life,” she said. “Unless you've done it, it may be hard to explain.”
Surgeons told Keating they were thrilled with the health and performance of her kidney, calling it “a Cadillac.” It started functioning in the recipient's body almost immediately, she said.
All Keating ever learned about the recipient was that he was a man and was recovering well.
Like some other donors, Keating has written an anonymous letter to the recipient. It was sent to UW staff and then on to the patient.
Now all Keating can do is wait to see if he responds.
Generally, kidney donors recover well from the surgery, Davis said. People who are healthy can easily live with one kidney, she said.
In fact, one donor participated in the Seattle-to-Portland bike ride about 10 weeks after his surgery, Davis said.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, everybody is absolutely fine,” Davis said. “The rates of kidney failure in living donors are small, a bit above the general population, but it's very small.”
Keating remained hospitalized for two days following her kidney donation and spent about a week at home doing little besides resting on the couch. She has a 4-inch scar on her lower right abdomen and three smaller ones.
Although initially fatigued by the surgery, her stamina has increased with every passing week. She recently began resuming her swimming and workouts on elliptical machines at Monroe's YMCA.
“It's been such an amazing experience,” Keating said. “I would definitely do it again — if I had an extra one.
“People say it's such a wonderful thing, but I think why not? Why wouldn't you help someone else if you can?”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;
Learn more about donations
To learn more about kidney donation, go to these websites:
National Kidney Foundation: transplantation/livingDonors/index.cfm
National Kidney Registry:
United Network for Organ Sharing:
Story tags » HealthHuman Interest

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