Few Texans Choose to Be Living Donors - NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth

A mother & daughter’s journey through kidney disease and donation

Few Texans Choose to Be Living Donors

NBC 5 anchor hopes to increase awareness



    Only a very small number of people on the kidney transplant list in Texas receive organs form a living donor, as NBC 5 anchor Kristi Nelson's mother did.

    Nelson donated a kidney to her mother on Thursday, becoming Baylor Health's 798th living donor.

    According to Dallas-based organ bank Southwest Transplant Alliance, 200 Caucasians and 200 Latinos donate a kidney each year in Texas. Fewer than 50 African-American Texans donate each year.

    Kristi Nelson's mother, Helen, went on the waiting list for a kidney transplant last year. At the beginning of August of this year, 18,000 Texans were on that list. Most will wait for someone to die so the organ can be donated.

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    "I never had a major illness, so the prospect of going into surgery and being operated on is scary," Kristi Nelson said before the surgery. "I think it would be scary for anyone and, of course, it is a major surgery and things could go wrong."

    Her mother said she was shocked when she learned about her youngest daughter's decision.

    "I was like, 'I don't think she's going to do it. I don't think she's going to do it,'" she said. "That's a big step... going into surgery and giving someone a kidney. That is a big, major step, so you have to let them make up their own mind and decide what they want to do. I did not push her to do it."

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    A former Dallas Cowboy who donated a kidney to former teammate Ron Springs said his friend also never asked him to donate.

    The diabetes Springs lived with for years caused his kidneys to fail. Everson Walls said he saw his friend's hopes for a transplant rise and fall.

     "And you could hear the disappointment, and I was disappointed as well," Walls said. "And that moment when he told me, I was like, 'Well, let me see what I can do.' And I knew if I was a viable candidate, I was going to do it."

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    The February 2007 transplant made national news. Six months later, they walked onto the field at Texas Stadium to cheers -- a story of friendship and inspiration.

    Springs fell into a coma in the fall of 2007 because of an unrelated surgery. He died in May 2011.

    "Even though I tried to do the best I could, I wish he was still here," Walls said.

    Pam Silvestri, the spokeswoman for Southwest Transplant Alliance, is also a living donor. She said her decision was right in line with what she does for a living.

    "My friend is dying, and I have what she needs. And all the medical expertise in the world can't save her if someone's not willing to give her a kidney, so it was a no-brainer," she said.

    She learned in the summer of 2010 that her friend Jennifer Cox needed a kidney transplant.

    "She just kept saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You've never had surgery,'" Silvestri said.

    "I was all worried about Pam," Cox said. "And she's going to go in and lay on this table to take out an organ? What a sacrifice."

    The transplant surgery happened in January. Seven months later, Silvestri is back living an active life, including biking every day around White Rock Lake.

    Cox now lives a healthy life she never knew. She had kidney disease for years, but doctors don't know why.

    She got her first kidney transplant in 1995 and met Silvestri that same year after she started volunteering at Southwest Transplant Alliance.

    "I went to the hospital and went to sleep. Doctors did the work. She's done more," Silvestri said as she pointed at her friend.

    "But you saved me from being on dialysis, and if you've ever been on dialysis, it is so life-changing and you can't live on dialysis forever," Cox said.

    The transplant surgery is life-changing for donors, too.

    They now have just one healthy kidney. It grows to do the work of two. As the body adjusts, energy might be low for a few months.

    Some studies report donors have a greater chance of developing high blood pressure later. The surgery could bring complications -- allergic reaction to anesthesia, infection, pneumonia, even death.

    "You're going into surgery a healthy person." Silvestri said. "And the way the doctor explained it to me is, the doctors take the oath to do no harm, and the living donors are the ones in this group they're doing harm to because these are healthy people who have no need for surgery."

    Donors risk it all to help another live. And some that find they, too, have a better life.

    "I know there are some studies when they look back over 20 years over people that donated and, generally, these people have a better quality of life, so to speak, [and] usually are a little bit more successful," said Dr. Lauren McDonald of Dallas Nephrology Associated. "I guess it's because of that altruistic spirit of goodwill and doing something."

    Silvestri and Walls both say that becoming a living donor enriched their lives.

    Silvestri said she has become nicer and more loving and has started repairing relationships she let flounder.

    "The extra benefit you have is the feeling you have after it's done -- the feeling you've helped someone, helped save their life, prolonged their life," Walls said. "[You] still jog, still act a fool, fall and get up. You're not this fragile person because of of it. And you can save a life, man, you can save a life. That is a great feeling."

    Kristi Nelson said she expect she'll also experience that.

    "I think it will be a new era for her and for me," she said. "What that means, I don't know. I do believe I will always feel good about it and I don't think that's going to change no matter what happens over the next few months or few years. I think that I'll always feel good about it."

    For more on Kristi's Gift, kidney donation, and other resources, click here to access our special section. You can follow the latest on Kristi's journey through Twitter (with hashtag #KristisGift) and on Kristi's Fan Page on Facebook.