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Patient’s kidney transplant a ‘bittersweet’ family affair

Sep. 22, 2016, 8:56 AM

Transplant patient Khris Downing holds up a photo of his sister, Geraldine Williams, from whom he received a kidney following her recent death. (photo by Joe Howell)
Transplant patient Khris Downing holds up a photo of his sister, Geraldine Williams, from whom he received a kidney following her recent death. (photo by Joe Howell)

Turning tragedy into triumph is something Khris Downing is learning to do.

He’s getting a lot of practice, as he is alive today because of a life-saving organ donation from his older sister, Geraldine Williams, who died on July 26.

“This is an example of the expression ‘bittersweet,’” said Downing. “I am figuring out how to balance loss with life. It’s been really hard, but I pray about it daily and keep on going. It is what Geraldine would want me to do.

“She would tell me to take what God has given me and run with it. Those would be her words of encouragement.”

Downing, 45, received a kidney transplant on July 28, just months after being listed on the waiting list at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and beginning dialysis for end-stage renal failure.

“I would have stayed on dialysis the rest of my life to maintain my sister’s life,” said the retired Huntsville, Alabama, police officer. “But it was not in my hands. It was a power from above.”

There’s not much else that can explain the series of events leading up to Downing’s transplant in July.

Geraldine Williams and her six sisters were scheduled to leave July 23 on a weeklong vacation to Cancun, Mexico, to celebrate her recent retirement. The day prior to their departure, Williams was tending to her flower garden in anticipation of being gone. She suffered a heat stroke.

While in the hospital, she had another stroke, which left her with no brain function. Her children, aware that she was an organ donor, asked if their uncle could be considered for a directed kidney donation.

The news came as a surprise to Downing, who was called to the hospital for a meeting.

“I knew to be alert to any calls from Vanderbilt, but when the Huntsville hospital called saying I needed to get there immediately to speak to the transplant folks, I was confused.

“They told me that my nephew and nieces had requested that I receive their mom’s kidney. Here they were about to lose their mother and they were being selfless. It takes a lot to think about someone else during a time like that. They took a tragic situation and turned it into a miracle.”

Unknown to anyone, Downing and his sister were the same blood type.

One week after his transplant, Downing attended his sister’s funeral. Today, he continues his recovery and is talking about beginning the next chapter in his life, which includes advocating for minority awareness and organ donation.

“People of color tend not to be organ donors,” he said. “We don’t realize that we can help others and even save lives, like my sister did. I plan to get involved with organ donation organizations and help educate the minority communities about the need.”

Data from Tennessee Donor Services shows that minorities make up 58 percent of the more than 120,000 patients in need of transplants in the United States, while only 34 percent of donors are minorities. Of the more than 98,000 people nationwide awaiting kidney transplants, 34 percent are African-American, according to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) data from June.

Raising awareness about the critical need for organ donation within minority communities is vital, said April DeMers, ACNP, post-transplant coordinator at Vanderbilt.

“Minorities make up a large majority of our organ waitlist, but they are a small proportion of our donors,” said DeMers. “Although organs are not matched according to race or ethnicity and people of different races frequently match one another, we do know that compatible matches are more likely to be found among members of the same ethnic group.”

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