I can’t think of a better workplace story this year, particularly at the holidays, than the gift of life that PreferredOne data analyst Jackie Francis gave colleague Deb Chorzempa.
Last winter, Francis learned through a Facebook post that Chorzempa was in dire need of kidney transplant. The colleagues work in the same department at insurer PreferredOne. They played on the company softball team, but they were more acquaintances than buddies.
“Only a few close friends and family knew I needed a kidney,” said Chorzempa.
Chorzempa publicized her condition to friends when she realized that she didn’t have years to wait on the list of thousands awaiting a donor kidney. Francis’ sister saw the post in February, and alerted her.
“I felt like I’d been training for this for years,” said Francis. “I quit smoking years ago. I work out six days a week, eat the right things. It all made sense.”
The pair were ruled a medical match. The transplant of Francis’ healthy kidney was performed at University of Minnesota Medical Center in June.
“I see Jackie and I think magnificent things about her,” said a grateful Chorzempa. “It’s crazy that someone would do something like this for me.
“My son, Aiden, just turned 12. I didn’t want him to see me get sick.”
Chorzempa, 45, and Francis, 36, who have worked together at PreferredOne for 19 years, are no longer just acquaintances. They are bonded.
Francis, who has suffered from depression, said she has never felt better, physically or emotionally. Moreover, medical experts say we only need one kidney. And kidney donors tend to outlive the general population.
“I was depressed going into the surgery,” Francis recalled. “There’s, like, only a 2 percent chance of death. But the doctor wants you informed and to understand the risk. But I was back running after 11 days and back to work in three weeks.”
This story is close to my heart. And kidney.
In June, after completing an exhaustive round of tests, I was rejected as a kidney donor for my friend, Don St. Dennis, 68. He’s battling kidney disease related to exposure to toxic-defoliant Agent Orange during his Army tour in the Vietnam War. St. Dennis, fortunately, is still strong enough for a transplant after a three-year fight. I wrote about it in July: https://tinyurl.com/y7kug2xg.
The gift of life through organ donation is an amazing thing. My friends at the Minneapolis VA Health Care Center said the last column inspired some interest for vets in need.
Dr. Raja Kandaswamy, director of kidney and pancreas transplants at U hospitals, removed Francis’ kidney for transplantation into Chorzempa.
“Nearly 50,000 [Americans] die annually of kidney failure and there are 120,000 on the kidney-transplant list of UNOS [United Network for Organ Sharing],” Kandaswamy said. “In Minnesota, there are up to 3,000 patients waiting. The transplant not only improves the quality of life, but extends [recipient] lives by about seven years on average.
“There are about 8,000 deceased donors nationally that yield 15,000 to 16,000 kidneys. That just doesn’t meet demand. We have to supplant that with more live donors. We have 125 million potential, live adult donors. Unless we get more live donors, which started about 50 years ago, and the number hasn’t grown much in 10 years, we won’t stop the bleeding. The number has started to pick up in the last year or two.”
More people die annually from kidney disease than breast or prostate cancer. Those in need of a kidney can last for years on dialysis, but the several-day-a-week treatments, or nightly dialysis at home, are disruptive and aren’t long-term solutions.
The insurance of the recipient covers donor medical expenses. And employers increasingly are willing to work on medical leave for donors.
“My team has been most supportive,” Francis said. “Without them picking up my slack, my decision to donate would have been much more difficult.”
Chorzempa was out of work for about seven weeks before she was welcomed back by happy and grateful colleagues at PreferredOne.
“It probably took me until September to feel really strong,” she said. “I feel great now and do everything I want.”
This is Chorzempa’s second kidney transplant in 22 years. She received one from her mother in 1996. She turned to Facebook last winter in hopes that she could avoid a long wait on dialysis. She knows she was fortunate.
“The response was amazing,” said Chorzempa, shy about publicizing her illness. “My donor was almost sitting next to me.”
Chorzempa is still stunned that her colleague would be so generous.
“It’s such a great gift to give someone the gift of life,” Chorzempa said. “I can’t put it into words.”
Francis, also grateful for the opportunity, is the embodiment of the adage: “It is greater to give than to receive.”
“I feel really great about this,” Francis said.
Happy holidays to all the givers of time, treasure or organs.
More information: United Network for Organ Sharing, or www.unos.org.