Megan Dunnagan was born fighting for her life.
Doctors put her on dialysis right after her birth as her kidneys failed.
When Dunnagan was a toddler, her mother donated a kidney. It worked for 14 years until it failed, too.
Dunnagan, now 28, has been waiting for a new kidney ever since, undergoing grueling dialysis treatments three times a week that leave her exhausted.
Her chances of finding a compatible donor are slim, and like many on the organ transplant waiting list, her time is running out.
“I’m worried because it just keeps going on and on,” said her mother, Janet Dunnagan. “How much can her body take? How much can her body endure?” Out of options, her mother placed classified newspaper advertisements seeking possible donors.
“I’m desperate,” her mom said. “We’ve been waiting long enough.”
An increase in life expectancy coupled with a rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are contributing to a high demand for organs – demand that outpaces their availability, said JoAnn McCleary, living donation coordinator at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.
“The number of people needing a kidney is growing, but the number of kidneys to give these people is kind of flat,” McCleary said.
Every 80 minutes someone dies in the U.S. awaiting an organ transplant because of the shortage, according to LifeCenter Northwest, the organ procurement organization that serves this region. There are more than 1,600 people waiting for organ transplants of all kinds in the Pacific Northwest. More than 110,000 people are on the organ transplant waiting list nationwide.
The average wait time for those on the list in need of a kidney is two to five years, depending on the person’s blood type. Megan Dunnagan, however, is highly sensitized, which means that her body has been exposed to so many antibodies through blood transfusions and the prior transplant that it will reject most kidneys.
She is a potential match for 3 percent of possible donors in the area.
“It makes it much more difficult to find a compatible donor,” McCleary said.
Dunnagan’s family members have been tested, but none is compatible. Dunnagan found out on her 28th birthday that a young Spokane woman who wanted to donate wasn’t a match either.
Without a transplant, her prognosis is poor.
While there are many factors that affect a person’s life expectancy on dialysis, the average is about 10 years. Dunnagan has been on dialysis for 12 years.
“You basically stay on dialysis or you pass away,” Dunnagan said. But, “you can’t live forever on dialysis.”
‘I want … a normal life’
During a recent day Dunnagan sat in a hospital bed as she underwent dialysis at Deaconess Hospital. She was pale and weak. A life of medical problems make her appear much older than 28.
“I wish I could be healthier,” she said. “I want to know what it’s like to have a normal life. I’ve never really been able to do that.”
She was born in Ketchikan, Alaska, in 1984, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck twice, asphyxiating her. She was airlifted to Seattle Children’s Hospital for treatment, but her kidneys had shut down and she was put on dialysis at 5 days old.
“Every woman is so excited about the birth of their first child,” Janet Dunnagan said. “But I didn’t bring my baby home for five months, and I brought her home with nurses around the clock. It was devastating.”
Since then, Megan Dunnagan has been in and out of hospitals and had dozens of surgeries. She’s suffered countless infections, and in addition to her kidney troubles, she’s had open-heart surgery and a hysterectomy, preventing her from having children as she’d once hoped.
“Sometimes I wish I could disappear,” Janet Dunnagan said. “It’s like I can’t handle it sometimes. I feel so sorry that she didn’t get to live the life she wanted, or wants now. It hurts so bad.”
Her daughter has three dialysis treatments each week – three hours each.
Dunnagan lives in Moses Lake but travels often to Spokane for medical treatments. She recently underwent five surgeries to fix the badly damaged vein in her arm where she receives dialysis, called a fistula. That failed, so doctors put two tubes in her neck – one for antibiotics and one to serve as a temporary dialysis port – and will create a new fistula in her leg for dialysis treatments.
The young woman enjoys cooking, reading and attending church on Sundays. She dotes on her boyfriend and her little black Chihuahua, Killer. When she was healthy enough, she worked as a caregiver for the elderly and taught children in Sunday school.
She eats a restricted diet and can’t travel or have much of a social life. More than anything, though, Dunnagan wishes she could have a full-time job.
A caretaker at heart, she dreams of someday working with children on dialysis.
Asked if she remains hopeful a matching donor will be found, Dunnagan paused.
“Sometimes and sometimes not,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder, is this just my life? Forever?”
The ultimate gift
Janet Dunnagan would give away her other kidney if she could.
Having one kidney has had no adverse effect on her life, she said. With so many others struggling every day as they await a transplant, she wants people to be aware of the need for organ donors.
“This isn’t just about Megan,” she said. “I just want people to be more aware of organ donation. There is nothing like the joy of giving life.”
Organs can be donated when a person dies, but some organs, including kidneys, can also be donated through living donations, either by family members who are matches or altruistic donors – people who give an organ to a stranger.
“Living donation is the ultimate gift,” said McCleary, of Sacred Heart Medical Center. “People can live well with one kidney.”
Possible donors must be healthy and undergo a rigorous medical evaluation to determine whether they’re suitable, she said. While there are some risks associated with anesthesia and surgery, it’s safe for most people to live with one kidney and evidence shows most kidney donors don’t experience negative long-term health consequences.
Once the donation is complete, no major lifestyle changes are needed, though donors do need to have regular checkups, maintain their weight, stay well-hydrated and avoid high-protein diets.
“We really have to make sure that this person has the commitment to care for themselves afterward,” McCleary said.
Donors are hospitalized for two to five days after the surgery. They can drive as soon as they no longer need strong pain medications and can return to work in one to three weeks.
While it is illegal for organs to be bought or sold in the United States, federal funds have been set aside to help eligible donors with related expenses such as travel. The transplant is usually paid for by the recipient’s insurance provider.
McCleary urged people to look into living donation, which has a higher success rate and lasts longer than deceased-donor kidneys. If that’s not possible, they could consider identifying themselves as an organ donor through the state Department of Licensing.
Whether or not someone is an eligible donor, Janet Dunnagan hopes people who hear her daughter’s story learn something from it.
“People take life for granted,” she said. “Cherish every day you have with your family and the health that you have. Savor it all because life sometimes is not fair. It hurts. It can change in an instant.”