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Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Live kidney donors are in high demand in Washington state

Shelby Whitson recieves dialysis at Fresenious Dialysis in Spokane Valley on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Shelby Whitson recieves dialysis at Fresenious Dialysis in Spokane Valley on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Shelby Whitson needs a kidney. But so do more than 1,600 other people in Washington, and there’s never enough to go around.

Whitson was diagnosed with hereditary kidney disease at 15. Now at 32 she jokes that her family has some kind of record of kidney disease treatment at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center: her grandfather died from kidney disease and her mother, an aunt and an uncle all have it.

“It’s on my mom’s side of the family,” Whitson said. “There was a 50-50 chance that I’d get it, but it usually doesn’t come out until later in life.”

The first sign that something was wrong were debilitating migraines. Whitson went to see a doctor who discovered her blood pressure was very high.

“It was 200 over something. It was at stroke level,” Whitson said.

More tests revealed what she and her family feared – there was something wrong with her kidneys.

There is no cure for kidney disease, and a person can’t live without kidneys, so doctors set out to slow the disease’s progression. Whitson figured she’d be fine with dialysis and that a transplant was something that would come up when she hit 50.

But the disease progressed quickly. By the time she turned 23, the two kidneys she was born with had quit working. She had a transplant at 26, but it didn’t take.

“It just never worked 100 percent right,” Whitson said.

When the transplant failed, Whitson had no working kidneys left.

Now she spends three hours and 15 minutes in dialysis three days a week, a painful and exhaustive treatment that’s necessary to keep her alive.

“If you think about it, your blood is being sucked out and cleaned,” Whitson said. “The doctors compare it to running a marathon – even though I just sit there and watch TV.”

As if dialysis isn’t trying enough, Whitson is allergic to some of the fluid used in the procedure, so she has to take a lot of allergy medication before she goes in.

“That makes me extra tired when I’m done,” Whitson said.

Although she can’t work any longer and had to move to be very close to her parents home in Newman Lake, she doesn’t complain and tries to keep an upbeat attitude. But the ongoing treatment is tiring.

“I really wish I could find a live donor,” Whitson said.

Most people have two kidneys yet can live with just one, and it’s common to test volunteer relatives and friends to see if they are a match for a live kidney donation.

One friend was a match, but now has other medical issues and can’t be a donor.

Whitson posts on social media to raise awareness of the need for live donors, and she’s heard of people who connected with donors online.

“But people must understand it’s a process to become a donor,” Whitson said. “You can’t just say yes and do it next Tuesday.”

Tim Stevens, director of Transplant Services at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, said that among donor organs, kidneys are always in highest demand.

The surgery donors undergo to have a kidney removed has become much less invasive, Stevens said, so recovery is easier, but a donor can’t just stop by the transplant center and give a kidney.

“You have to go through tests and screenings,” Stevens said. “It is major surgery. There are fissures. It will take some time to get back on your feet.”

Stevens said there are no transplant programs in Montana, North Idaho or Alaska, so people from those states often travel to Spokane for the surgery – or to be nearby the transplant center if an organ becomes available.

Being a live donor is a voluntary decision, Stevens said, and truly altruistic donors do walk through the doors at the transplant center and say, ‘Hi, I’d like to give you a kidney.’ But it’s rare. Most live donors give an organ to someone they know very well or are related to.

“I really do believe living donation is the untapped resource for kidney transplantation,” Stevens said.

Stevens has a very personal connection to his job because his mother was a dialysis patient when she was around 70. Stevens said she decided she didn’t want a kidney – but an older brother turned out to be a match and persuaded her to accept it.

“Now she’s 93,” Stevens said. “That kidney added more than 20 quality years to her life.”

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