August 22, 2003

The greatest gift, part one of three

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Tim Gilfilen, director the Medical Art Group,, donated one of his kidneys to a college friend, Randy Roberts. Ironically, Roberts signed Gilfilen’s donor card as a witness before ever knowing that Gilfilien would eventually be his donor. Dana Johnson

The greatest gift, part one of three

Beginning in September, Employee Celebration Month at Vanderbilt will place a special emphasis upon organ, tissue and bone marrow donation awareness.

In part two of this three-part series in the Reporter on organ donatrion, Tim Gilfilen, director of the Medical Art Group, describes the process of becoming a living donor for a college friend.

In the final installment of the series next week, you’ll hear from a transplant surgeon and the most frequently asked questions about organ, tissue and bone marrow donation will be answered.

For several years I wanted to be an organ donor but had never made it “official” and signed an organ donor card until the church I attended had a sign-up table in the lobby. Two friends were manning the table that day — Jeanna, whose husband was a liver recipient, and Randy Roberts, a friend from college. They witnessed my card when I signed it.

At that time, I never thought that I would get to experience the joy of seeing one of my organs help someone else. Ironically, the person whom I would help had just signed my donor card as a witness.

Randy and I became friends in college while attending Lipscomb University two decades ago. Over the years, we lost contact with each other until we started attending the same church. I knew Randy received a kidney from his mother shortly after I graduated from college. He lost the use of that kidney about two years later and had been on dialysis ever since.

I had seen a dramatic decline in Randy’s health, but I never knew his dilemma until I ran into another friend from Lipscomb. He told me that Randy was in desperate need of a transplant and that, unfortunately, Randy’s three brothers weren’t able to donate.

He was going to be tested to see if he would be a match. The thought of donating a kidney for Randy had never crossed my mind until then.

I wanted to know if I would be a match before I talked to my wife about the idea. I called the nurse who was handling Randy’s case to see what would be involved. I asked if she could tell if I was a match by looking at my bone marrow donor registry information, and she said that she could.

After faxing my registry information to her, the nurse called to tell me that I would be a match but that there would be a lot of other tests to determine if I would be a good candidate to donate.

I remember how easy this was so far. I did all the work over the phone and fax and did not even have to give a blood sample. Now came the hard part, so I thought; how do I tell my wife, Diana? I knew she would think I had lost my mind. My biggest concern was that one of our three kids might need a kidney one day.

When I talked to Diana about the idea she was very supportive. She helped with my biggest concern about the kids. We discussed the odds of one of our kids needing a kidney and if I would even be the best candidate in the family to give. I talked to other members of my family about the idea. After their initial surprise, they were supportive. I talked to my boss, Joel Lee, about what I was considering and the possibility of taking time off for an elective surgery. He, too, was supportive.

Now it was time to meet the nurse that I spoke with on the phone earlier. She was friendly and explained in greater detail the risks of being a living donor and what to expect with the surgery.

Over the next eight weeks I would have several lab tests, physicals, and talks with medical staff. The tests didn’t take much time but the waiting to see what was next seemed like it would never end.

I did my own research on the Internet. I also talked to Dr. Hal Helderman, whom I trusted as an expert in the area of kidney transplantation. He was not involved with this transplant, so I knew that he would give me unbiased answers to my questions.

I even ran across Deborah Caplenor Brown, another co-worker at Vanderbilt who had donated a kidney to her husband a few months earlier. She shared her experience with me.

The last test I was scheduled for was an arteriogram to make sure both of my kidneys were in good shape. Next to the recovery from surgery, this was the hardest part of the whole process. It was the most time consuming and had more “risks” than any procedure so far.

All along there was never any pressure to continue, even up until the day of surgery. While I was in pre-op, they came in one last time to give me one more chance to change my mind. After about eight weeks of testing, talking and waiting, I was ready.

The day of the surgery was very special. We were surrounded by Randy’s family, friends from church and friends from college. It’s hard to explain the love that was shown by Randy’s family — most of whom I had just met the day before.

I was in the hospital for four days and back working within three weeks of surgery. Randy took longer to recover; his health had been digressing before the surgery because of the need for a kidney.

He was in and out of the hospital for about four months with respiratory and infection problems. After about five months from surgery Randy’s new kidney was working great, he was enjoying his freedom from the dialysis machine.

He was just starting to get back to normal when he contracted a terminal lung infection. He passed away about six months after the transplant from a lung infection.

Although the outcome was not the way I hoped, it still was a great experience knowing that Randy was given a chance and that his family, his friends, and I would never have to ask “what if he had received the transplant?”

It has been almost two years since the transplant, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about the whole process of being a living donor.

I have no regrets and would do it again if I had the chance. I proudly carry my organ donor card with Randy’s signature on it in my wallet in hopes that one day some of my organs may survive me.