JUDITH TOY (Living Donor)



I picked up the telephone and dialed Carole’s number. She answered with a weary hello. Carole, my good buddy of 20 years, was suffering from Polycystic Kidney Disease. She’d always been a vibrant woman, a woman who’d break into song--mostly Broadway tunes--changing the words to suit the moment. A talented social worker, Carole was a generous lover of life. Her father died of PKD when she was a teen, so she’d chosen to remain childless because she didn’t want to pass on the PKD genes. Her brother Marc’s kidneys were failing as we spoke.

“I want to be tested to give you my kidney,” I told her.

“Well first of all, the chances are slim that we’ll be a match,” Carole said. She was sick and depressed, about to undergo surgery to prepare her for the drudgery of hemodialysis. Then surgeons would remove both her kidneys, which had swollen to the size of footballs. 

“I have a feeling,” I said. 

“I don’t want to get my hopes up again,” she countered. Carol had received glib but well-meaning offers of help that had faded to nothing.

“Well at least find out if you can receive the kidney of someone with Rh negative factor in their blood.” 

“Jude, are you thinking this through?”

“Yeah, I’m sure."

The answer came back yes. That was the first in a series of yeses that led to the surgery. But I knew. I knew from the first phone call—no, from my first inner inkling—that I’d be giving Carole my kidney.

When I first saw Carole at home in Princeton, New Jersey, after she’d had her kidneys removed and was suffering through dialysis, I hardly recognized her. She looked like an Auschwitz victim—skeletal, eyes huge and drawn by dark circles, her complexion sallow as death. She could barely walk. I had the stark realization that Carole was dying. Certainly her quality of life was very low.

The preliminary blood tests came back good. Next I took a series of tests in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. The test results were good. Even the stone-faced transplant coordinator hugged me and cried because the head nephrologist had just told us the surgery was all but certain.

When I arrived at Carole’s house in Princeton that night, she was at the dialysis unit. I entered the den and walked over to Lorin, her husband, who was reading his paper. “Lorin, the surgeons tell me it looks like a go.” He grabbed me, his glasses fell off, and the newspaper crunched between us as we hugged and sobbed. The next morning, when the final tests came through positive, Carole and I had a similar scene, our hearts full to bursting with gratitude.

At the hospital, I remember taking the long walk to the Transplant Unit, down what seemed like blocks of narrow corridor at the U of P Hospital with Lorin and Carole’s mother, Claire, and Carole in a wheelchair. At the desk where we signed in, we were assigned to separate rooms, so we talked by telephone. My dear and supportive husband, Philip, was absent by my request. My daughters Laura and Halle had arrived from the South, each with a pre-school child in tow, so there was a familial air of celebration in the room. 

The surgery itself was a jewel on a chain of profound events. The moment Dr. Markmann placed my kidney into Carole’s waiting open abdomen, it began secreting urine! I was told that later, the nurses were agog because I refused their offers of morphine. Today, over 11 years later,Carole is enjoying a normal life, and I’m still healthy as a horse. 

The transfer of my kidney to Carole’s body took the work, the skill, the education, the willingness, the generosity and the support of a legion of people. Folks were praying for us from as far away as Israel! I never felt doubtful or fearful or brave or any of the other emotions folks wanted to assign me. The “decision” felt like a simple foregone conclusion—like looking in the mirror and asking if I wanted to give myself a gift

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen teacher, says there is no self and other. I’m here to tell you this is true.

Thanks to Judith Toy and to Western North Carolina Woman, the original publisher of this story.