Pam Levitt has one of Bonnie Teeter-Hickey’s kidneys
The pair hope that sharing their story will raise awareness of kidney disease and live organ donation
September 10, 2016
Craig — Two employees at the Bureau of Land Management share more than a workplace, they share a kidney.
Pam Levitt, a resources specialist with the BLM, learned about seven years ago that she was suffering from chronic kidney disease that was likely caused by complications of Type 2 diabetes.
"Kidney disease is called the silent killer. I didn't have any symptoms. It's not just a disease of the elderly," Pam said.
She qualified for the transplant list, but with a wait of five to 10 years, or more according to the Living Kidney Donors Network, members of her family sought to qualify as living donors.
"Both my husband and I talked to her kidney doctor," said Norma Levitt, Pam's mother. "He told us neither one of us were candidates, to donate her a kidney, because of our age."
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When no one in her immediate family was a candidate, coworker Bonnie Teeter-Hickey, a single mom also working as a resource specialist for the BLM, stepped forward with a miraculous offer, the offer to give Pam one of her kidneys.
"This was my way to give back," Teeter-Hickey said. "John 15-13 says there is no greater love than to lay down my life for my friends. It felt like the right thing to do."
Pam wasn't going to get better, only worse, and Teeter-Hickey was offering a chance for Pam to live a full life.
"You get to thinking about it and what greater gift can a person receive other than a gift of life. Pam's future was terminal," said Carroll Levitt, Pam's father. "It (the kidney donation) was a miraculous thing."
The experience the two women had made them want to share their story to help others avoid the disease, when possible, and to encourage healthy people to consider organ donation to help those who already are ill.
"If we can help one more person, then sharing our story will have made a difference in the prevention and treatment of this disease," Pam said.
Chronic Kidney Disease is a silent killer
Kidney disease is known as the silent killer, and according to the Mayo Clinic, chronic kidney disease can progress to end stage kidney failure and is fatal without artificial filtering, dialysis or a kidney transplant.
"Preventable conditions that lead to chronic kidney disease include type one and two diabetes, high blood pressure and recurrent kidney infections," said Gisela Garrison, director of the Health Center at Northwest Colorado Health. "It may also be caused by a few situations that can't be controlled including shock from accidents and genetic problems."
The symptoms of kidney disease are nonspecific meaning they can feel like they are being caused by another illness, and as kidneys are able to compensate for loss of function, the disease may not be diagnosed until irreversible damage is done, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"Getting a physical one time per year is important as all the underlying causes can be diagnosed via tests done during an annual exam," Garrison said.
It's important, according to Garrison, that the physical include a urinary analysis as well as blood pressure test along with measures of height and weight. Having an annual physical regardless of illness is critical.
"What you don't know might kill you," Garrison said.
A week before surgery Mary Teeter, Teeter-Hickey's mother, learned that she was in stage three renal failure.
"I had gone in for something else, I was in the patient porthole and saw stage three renal failure on my record," she said.
Now Teeter-Hickey had another difficult choice to move forward with her gift to Pam or halt the process to learn if she could help her mother.
"Pam is young. My mom isn't. Mom and dad urged me to go forward and I didn't want to live with the 'what if's.' Pam is the first person I knew who needed this, and I didn't want to let her down," Teeter-Hickey said.
Mary supported her daughter's decision to move forward.
"I was blessed to have such a loving, giving daughter. I'm on my way out, Pam's young," she said.
There are currently almost 100,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant, according to The United Network of Organ Sharing, the organization that manages the kidney transplant waiting list.
Resources to help those with progressive chronic kidney disease in are limited in Northwest Colorado.
"We have a referral and care coordination process to help people who need transplants get the specialized care they need," said Tamera Manzanares, marketing coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health.
People in Northwest Colorado who have progressed to the point of needing dialysis must travel outside of the area three or more times a week to a center. The costly, time consuming, painful process greatly impacts quality of life and so for some, isn't an option they are willing to take. Their only options are transplant or death.
Living organ donors give life
Everyday 12 people die waiting for a kidney, according to the National Kidney Foundation. There are two ways to donate, after death or by donating a living organ.
Living organ donation offer many benefits to the recipient including better outcomes and a life-saving alternative to the long, uncertain wait, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
To qualify as a living donor, Teeter-Hickey went through a battery of tests. Most were covered by Pam's insurance, but the first test she had to arrange herself.
"They do everything they can to discourage you. I had to arrange for the first CT scan myself to prove that I had two healthy kidney's," Teeter-Hickey said.
Next, was a 12 step testing process conducted by Presbyterian/St. Luke's, the hospital that performed the transplant. It included an initial health screen, confirmation of blood type, potential kidney donor release, lab work, nuclear medicine screening, EKG, chest x-ray, psychosocial assessments, preliminary cross-match, renal anatomy assessments, committee approval, scheduling the surgery date and meeting with the surgeon before the surgery.
Donor and recipient have separate medical teams. Testing results of the donor are confidential to allow the donor's medical team or the donor to reverse the decision to give, even on the day of surgery.
Pam now has 33 staples and three kidneys.
"They inserted Bonnie's kidney into my lower abdomen on my right side. I still have my kidneys and they help my new little bean work," Pam said.
She also has a new lease on life.
"It was wonderful to see Pam the next day. She was dying. The very next day that little thing had kicked-in and started working," Mary Teeter said.
The 33 staples will come out, but the hope is that the kidney will last a long time, as an organ from a living donor is expected to last about twice as long as one from a deceased donor.
"Donated organs have a shelf-life that is much higher for recipients of a live organ donation, about 20 years as compared to a deceased donor, about 10 years," Pam said.
Teeter-Hickey is back to work, but still healing as her body recovers from the removal of her kidney, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
"We knew it was going to be tuff, but we didn't expect the dizziness," said Brooklyn Hickey, Teeter-Hickey's 16-year-old daughter.
Despite the slow recovery Teeter-Hickey is upbeat and just as certain of her choice now as she was before the surgery.
"This is a temporary blip for me. Pam was running out of time. If we hadn't gone forward, Pam would have died," she said.
Saving a life has created bonds of connection and love between the women and their families.
"We feel connected, like sisters and it brought our families together. My family loves her. She saved my life," Pam said.
As a donor, the testing she went through gives Teeter-Hickey confidence of her overall good health and should she ever need a kidney she would be placed at the top of the transplant list, but there are many obstacles that donors like her face.
Now the pair share their stories to raise awareness of kidney disease, living organ donation and legislation designed to make donation easier.
"Pam's insurance covered most of the tests, the surgery and the follow-up care. But insurance doesn't cover living expenses while in Denver or during the 4 to 6 week recovery," Teeter-Hickey said. "There would be more donors if it were less of a burden on donors."
A bill in congress, the Living Donor Protection Act, is being considered. According to the National Kidney Foundation website, "the bill is designed to protect the rights of living donors and remove barriers to living organ donation. Specifically, the bill would end many forms of insurance discrimination facing living donors and extend job security through the Family and Medical Leave Act to those who donate an organ."
Removing barriers for living donors is important the women so to is raising research funds and awareness.
Pam has organized a team, the Renal Rebels, to participate on Sept. 18 in the National Kidney Foundation's annual kidney fundraising walk to be held in Denver. According to Foundations walk website, walks are "held in nearly 100 communities, the event raises awareness and funds lifesaving programs that educate and support patients, their families and those at risk."
The Renal Rebels are still accepting team members as well as sponsors. Learn more at the Denver Kidney walk or by messaging Pam on Facebook.
The families have also become advocates for both kinds of organ donation.
"It's a little over whelming to think that a person has that kind of personality, that good heartedness to do something like that for a fellow person and co-worker. She gave her a gift of life and now both girls, Pam and Bonnie are now wanting people to know what it means to be a donor. Mark it (organ donor) on your drivers license," say Norma Levitt.
The gift of a kidney doesn't have to wait until death.
"Anybody that want's to think about doing anything great should think about being a donor," Carroll Levitt said.