Saturday, April 4, 2015

Don't wait to DONATE your organs!

In the summer of 2010, I suffered through what I thought was the worst crisis of my life. My life as I knew it had exploded; my husband's two companies collapsed, we were forced to leave our home, and we had to sell off most of our possessions in order to start over again. I was gutted to the core; I lost eighteen pounds through worry and stress, wore dark glasses to avoid the neighbors, and became a hermit, turning down any and all invitations to concerts and weddings and campfires that summer.

The worst, however, was yet to come. 

In late August, my mom called me to tell me that my 29 year cousin Cassie had died unexpectedly of kidney failure. Already shattered, this news brought me to my knees. 

Though Cassie and I were not the closest of cousins, the news of her death was a shocking blow. When she was very young, Cassie had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes. Every mouthful of food she ate, every drink she consumed was carefully monitored by her parents. Nothing was safe; a cake at a birthday party, a glass of Kool-Aid on a hot summer day - all of her food and drink intake had to be scrutinized and measured against her blood sugar levels three or more times a day. I had no idea that her diabetes complications had worsened with age or that her kidneys had begun to fail. I was so wrapped up in my own apocalypse, I had failed to pay attention to the family around me. 

In the aftermath of her tragic death, I uncovered some startling facts about type 1 diabetes. Most diabetes cases in the U.S. are the result of our staggering obesity crisis: type 1 diabetics make up only 5% of the population.

Type 1 diabetes

The American Diabetes Association reports: "In type 1 diabetes, the body does not produce insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life. With the help of insulin therapy and other treatments, even young children can learn to manage their condition and live long, healthy lives."

Why, then, had Cassie succumbed to her disease at such a young age?

The American Diabetes Association explains: 
When our bodies digest the protein we eat, the process creates waste products. In the kidneys, millions of tiny blood vessels (capillaries) with even tinier holes in them act as filters. As blood flows through the blood vessels, small molecules such as waste products squeeze through the holes. These waste products become part of the urine. Useful substances, such as protein and red blood cells, are too big to pass through the holes in the filter and stay in the blood.

Diabetes can damage this system. High levels of blood sugar make the kidneys filter too much blood. All this extra work is hard on the filters. After many years, they start to leak and useful protein is lost in the urine. Having small amounts of protein in the urine is called microalbuminuria.

When kidney disease is diagnosed early, during microalbuminuria, several treatments may keep kidney disease from getting worse. Having larger amounts of protein in the urine is called macroalbuminuria. When kidney disease is caught later during macroalbuminuria, end-stage renal disease, or ESRD, usually follows.

In time, the stress of overwork causes the kidneys to lose their filtering ability. Waste products then start to build up in the blood. Finally, the kidneys fail. This failure, ESRD, is very serious. A person with ESRD needs to have a kidney transplant or to have the blood filtered by machine (dialysis).

I did not know until the funeral that Cassie had been searching for a kidney donor; I had no idea that her health had deteriorated so quickly. I had just seen her eight months before at a baby shower for her nephew; how could I have been so blind? I would have volunteered to be tested, had I known. 

What I do know is that Cassie went to sleep one night and never woke up.

There is no way for me to express the pain and heartbreak that her parents and brothers continue to suffer; how unnatural it was to see her grandparents grieving for their granddaughter; how stunned and heartbroken we were as a family to have one of our own snatched from us far too soon.

In the wake of Cassie's death, I vowed to share her story with my friends and students, hoping that by doing so, I would convince at least some of them to join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry through their local Secretary of State Office.

Gift of Life Michigan reports that as of April 1, 2015, 3,478 Michigan residents are waiting for an organ transplant. 2,791of these patients are waiting for a kidney. See for a list of needed organ donations in Michigan.

What many people do not know is that kidney donations can be made by a living donor. That's right, you can change someone's life RIGHT NOW by registering to be a living donor for a family member, friend, co-worker, or someone in your community.

What can you do to help?

1. Sign up to be on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry:
It is a database of residents who wish to be organ and tissue donors that is maintained by the Department of State. The registry is confidential and can only be accessed by Gift of Life Michigan to assist hospitals in the recovery and transplantation of organs and tissue.

Besides signing up online, you can add your name to the Organ Donor Registry when you:
  • Renew or replace your standard driver's license or state ID card online at
  • Visit a Secretary of State office and simply let the clerk know you want your name added to the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.
  • Renew your state ID card by mail by checking the organ donor box and your name will be placed on the donor registry.
All you need is your driver's license and a computer to sign up online. It's also a good idea to talk to your family about your wishes if something were to happen to you unexpectedly.

2. Sign up to be a living donor. The University of Michigan offers some important information on why this kind of donation is needed:

Due to the length of the kidney waiting list and the short supply of deceased donor organs, the waiting period for a deceased donor kidney can be several years. Therefore, if you are waiting for a kidney, having a live donor can decrease your waiting time for a kidney transplant. Your parents, children, siblings, other relatives, in-laws, and close friends can all be considered for living kidney donation. Some people do not have a designated recipient and end up donating a kidney to someone they do not know. Our transplant team is always available to ensure all your questions are answered thoroughly, whether you are a patient or potential donor, and to arrange any additional counseling necessary to help you make the decision.

See for more information as well as a Kidney Transplant Donor Form.

In the summer of 2010, I thought that my family's financial ruin was the worst crisis that we could have faced. I am sorry to say that it took Cassie's death for me to see my life and my good fortune more clearly. We weathered our ruin; Cassie is gone forever.

Please join me on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry TODAY. It only takes a minute, and your gift could give a suffering or terminally ill patient a new chance at life.


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