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Stories of hope

Mandi Smith: A God-led journey

Living donor, Mandi Smith

There are so many different situations that can lead a donor to considering donation. Some do it for a family member or friend, some do it altruistically or non-directed, and some, like me, do it for someone specific but not because we know or love that person, just because we want to help. Therefore, everyone’s “why” is so unique. As a Christian, if I had to sum up my why in just a couple words, it would be “God-led.” Throughout this journey there were so many times that it would be too hard for me to not believe that His hands were in this.

2020 was a rough year for everyone, right?

It was. There’s no doubt about it.

There was no escaping the coronavirus and its path of destruction, whether that was depression and loneliness, loss of job and income, being an “essential” worker or a healthcare worker, death of a loved one, or anything in between. By the end of 2020 and into 2021, all in my same friend circle, I had watched one friend lose her father to cancer and not be allowed to see him or grieve appropriately because of COVID-19, another friend with an abnormal mammogram which makes even the most positive of us scared, and a third friend with an ill father who continually went from hospital, to rehab, to home repeatedly for months … and “home” was my friend’s small two-story house where she and her husband are raising two teens. Add to that the general despair of this world, I couldn’t help but ask “God, why have you blessed me so much and all these people around me are hurting?” and “is there something more out there for me, something that I can do to help?” Don’t get me wrong, our family has had our share of hurt over the years as well. But at this particular moment, it did not escape me that it felt like my life was perfect compared to those around me. I wouldn’t wish ill-will on myself, but for some reason that just didn’t sit right with me.

It took months for God to throw something in my face, but one day I noticed a public plea for someone desperately searching for a kidney donor. I have been a blood donor for years and an organ donor on my driver’s license since the day I could drive, but living organ donation? This is not something I ever gave much, if any, thought to. I mean, I work in cardiology and we do heart transplants, but you only have one of those and you kind of need it to live … so living donors aren’t a thing in my world. I wasn’t ready to immediately jump on board with this person at the time I saw the plea, but it did get me thinking. There’s a lot of things I can’t do to help people with their illnesses or struggles, but this … this I could do. I am young (sort of, ha), I am healthy, I am single with no children to look after, I am a long-time employee of a great organization with a lot of time off built up, FMLA, short-term disability, and a phenomenal team around me that I know would pick up my slack during my time off. I have amazing family and friends who I know would support me, and I have O+ blood ~ I could help anyone! (If you are a donor reading this, you know there are WAY more things that go into being a match, but let’s just say I was still pretty naïve at this point, haha). Is there really any reason I shouldn’t do this? I was having a hard time finding one.

So, I did what any person would do who has a bestie that has worked in the transplant field for 20+ years. At our next semi-regularly scheduled girls morning breakfast, I started grilling her about the process of living donation. Working on getting a sense of if this is something I really wanted to do. Feeling like it was almost definitely something I wanted to start pursuing, it happened again … God showed up. He showed up to let me know there was someone in my local community, my hometown, who needs a kidney. Uh, what? Seriously? I didn’t know this person either, but if you’re already considering living donation, how could you not take it more seriously when you hear this? I live in a small town, this person could be my neighbor for all I knew. My “almost definitely want to pursue” very quickly turned into an “I’ve got to do this.”

With that, my process officially began with a phone call to the transplant center, giving this stranger’s name as someone I was hoping to help. It feels weird to tell member after member of the transplant team that you know the name of the person you want to donate to, but you don’t actually know the person. Maybe it’s not as weird to them as it was to me.

After a few phone calls with the transplant team, I decided it was time to tell my immediate family. By this time it became apparent to me that this could be a long process, one that the bottom could fall out from under at any time, and I didn’t want to tell many people, but I knew that those closest to me needed to know. First up, my mom, brother, and sister-in-law. Finding the courage, I reveal to them this process which I’ve begun and my intentions to donate my kidney.

Then …BOOM ….God… again.

My brother immediately responds with, “Is it for [insert recipient’s name]?” I’m literally shell-shocked. Apparently this person is in my brother’s circle (he knows A LOT of people), but not mine. My brother explains where I would’ve seen him or run into him before, but my memory is vague and everything is very tangential. I’ve never met him. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me. But, just knowing that there is a connection now makes this feel even more meant to be.

What comes next is a very long six months of blood work, more blood work, testing, appointments, testing, then more testing because there’s a discrepancy in the size of my kidneys. The day we got a surgery date I was ecstatic. Until, a brief scare with my heart due to an event that occurred while running, followed by some sustained high blood pressure, so more testing and more appointments. Did I mention, a LONG six months. The reason it was so long … because I wanted to help this person so badly, and I felt it in my bones that this is what God wanted too! The difference was, I wanted it done yesterday, but everything is in God’s timing.

Fast forward, surgery day – 1/4/2022. I am at complete peace. I can honestly say that there was not one moment from the time I woke up that day to the minute they wheeled me into the OR where I felt anything but peace and calm. I was not nervous; I did not question my decision. I joked with the doctors and nurses and technicians. My OR was the party room, ya’ll. Then, I had the fastest five hour nap I’ve ever experienced. There were hiccups … my liver was a jerk and tried to get in the way requiring an additional laparoscopic incision and additional OR time, and my cornea decided to have a party under my eyelids while I was under anesthesia and came out with an abrasion… but for all intents and purposes, the perfect outcome.

Post-operatively things went about as well as can be expected. Once I was far enough out of anesthesia, I was able to figure out that my PACU nurse, also a runner, I had met on a group run once before. She probably laughed all the way home that night at the girl, still halfway under anesthesia, who told her she was remembered by the pretty messy braid that she wore on the run we did to Ft. Indiantown Gap to clean up Wreaths of America. Oh the things you say under anesthesia. I had one really rough day of pain in the hospital, but another God-send came in the form of my one nurse. I could write all day about her, really, I could. I nominated her for the DAISY award at the hospital and I hope and pray every day that she gets it because she deserves it. I have zero doubt that she was assigned to those shifts and my hospital room on Jan 4th through 6th on purpose.

I was so lucky to have a great nurse stay with me for the first two weeks at home too (my mom!) and an outpouring of love, support, prayers, meals, “one-kidney” gifts, text messages, and phone calls from my family and friends. However, the most unexpected of them all, was an unsuspecting text from a previous co-worker and fellow Peloton aficionado who knew nothing of my surgery but noticed I was MIA on Peloton for over a week. When I told her what was going on, her response was perfect: “This is absolutely freaking amazing!!! May God who led you to this continue to keep you in good health and reward you only as He can. Jeez, this is just the real love God called us to … inspirational.” I appreciate her words SO much. I am not looking for reward or necessarily trying to be inspirational, but I do feel like God put me on this journey for a reason(s). Some I may have discovered already, others may be yet to come.

What’s next: As of the writing of this story, I have not yet met my recipient. I am hopeful this will come in the good and right time. I have been told only that he is doing well and that “your kidney is working.” Also, I hope to become involved in living donor advocacy and mentorship.

God is Good … All the Time!

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