From Transplant Coordinator to Organ Donor; How the Journey Changed my Perspective as a Nurse

Northwestern Medicine
Organ Donation and Transplantation April 03, 2012

Northwestern Medicine Nurse Gina Ferguson with Her FatherI started working as a heart transplant coordinator seven years ago.  When I began that role after having worked in a staff educator position, I knew it would be rewarding to help transplant patients and their families.  What I didn’t know was that one day, I too would be in their shoes. 

My father had battled high blood pressure most of his adult life. When it started to affect his kidneys, I knew it could mean that a transplant would be in his future.  I also knew I wanted to be his donor.  I am the only child and I knew that my dad and I were the same blood type, making me a likely match.  The thought did not scare me.  I was at peace with it from the beginning.

In May of 2011, I received a call from my mom, who explained that dad was being admitted to the local hospital with kidney failure. I knew it was time to discuss transplant as a family. I called dad, who was on his way to the hospital.  He was upset and scared. I told him as soon as the doctors were able to sort everything out, we would make an appointment at the Northwestern Memorial Kovler Organ Transplantation Center for an evaluation. I remember saying "don't worry, you will get one of my kidneys and it will be ok.” He didn't fight back.

A few weeks later we went to Northwestern for our evaluation.  I never wanted my dad to have to ask me for my kidney. I had made the decision long before and ran with it; he followed. We left the appointment confident and ready to walk down the path together. After testing was completed over the next couple of months, dad was listed for a kidney transplant. Since he was still doing "okay", we did not have to move forward immediately and would instead wait to schedule the surgery when his kidney function began to decline further.

It was the holiday season and as we sat around the table at Thanksgiving, my mom and dad tearfully thanked me for my selfless gift. I remember saying "you don't have to thank me" and dad replying "I have every reason in the world to thank you". It was the best Thanksgiving ever!

A few months went by. It was a strange feeling to wait, one I often struggled with, as part of me wanted him to get worse so that we could get this over with, yet who wants a parents illness to get worse?  My dad was feeling the same way.  My patients always tell me that waiting is the worst part and now I completely understand. I felt like I had to put my life on hold, something that my parents didn't want me to do. I am a triathlete, but I put my 2012 race plans on hold to focus my efforts on raising awareness for organ donation and transplantation.  I became involved in the National Kidney Foundation on the national and local levels. This allowed me the opportunity to meet others with similar interests and make a difference in individuals and families affected by kidney disease and increase the availability of organs for transplantation.

In late February, our wait came to an end.  Dad started to feel sluggish and was retaining fluid. A transplant date of March 15th was decided, which  seemed like a perfect day given that March is Kidney Awareness Month and it's close to St. Patrick’s Day; one of  my favorite days of the year. Knowing the wait was over put us all strangely at ease.  We felt calm and confident. We were all ready for a day I like to call the "Great Kidney Give-Away" to take place.

One week before our surgery, I traveled to Washington, D.C to speak in front of Congress on the importance of educating people about kidney disease, the need for more awareness of treatment options, and to seek support on various legislative issues. I was always taught that if you want something, you have to ask, so I went straight to the top. I was selected by the National Kidney Foundation to travel with them on World Kidney Day, March 8th. Standing alongside a group of individuals from all over the country made me feel empowered on Capitol Hill fighting for those affected with kidney disease…and of course my Dad.

We arrived at the hospital at 6AM on the day of our surgery, for what was probably the longest day of my mom’s life. I often thought about her and wondered what I could do to help her through such a stressful day. Dad wanted to arrive early so we could sit and talk before the procedures. We arrived around 5:30 a.m., but the quiet time suddenly turned in to registration, and greeting friends who had come to see us before surgery. Soon it was time to go so we could be prepped for surgery. We walked down the hall and hugged as we went in different directions. I've never been a fan of "goodbyes", so I said "see ya later" instead.  I wanted to go in to surgery with a smile on my face and hoped he would do the same. 

When I later awoke in recovery, I felt comfortable and excited to hear that my kidney was "good" and being transplanted in to dad. How exciting I thought to be able to give this gift! My time in recovery was mainly a blur, yet I distinctly remember my nurse telling me when my dad was out of surgery…and then I heard his voice. My curtain was pulled back and there he was across from me awake with my kidney smiling. Wow I's over, the day we were waiting for is over and we’re both still smiling.

I was transported to my room and visited with friends, family and co-workers. Soon, I was told that dad was doing great and had settled in his room.  I asked for assistance so I could go see him.  It was a tearful reunion!  Dad handed me a small box and in that box was a necklace he had made for me...a white gold ribbon shaped pendant with an emerald...a green ribbon to represent organ transplant. I cried, put it around my neck and knew this symbol would be with me forever!

The next two days were filled with visits from friends, family and co workers in between periods of rest. I got stronger and so did he. We left together on Saturday, both with normal kidney function and well on our way to recovery. Our follow up appointment went well too. My (his) kidney is adjusting well in its new home and my remaining one has limited separation anxiety. The “Great Kidney Give-Away” was a success.  I was asked at my appointment if I would do it all over again and my answer was without hesitation…YES!

I am grateful that I was healthy enough to be a living donor.  I feel as if I am the one who received the gift. The support I have received has been overwhelming at times... cards, letters, texts, flowers, gifts and hugs; each individual gifts for which I will be forever grateful. I gave a gift to save the life of my father but received a much larger gift in return.

Learn more about Dennis and Gina's story.

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