Never counting the cost: Organ donor's generosity tested with job loss, illness
By Richard Morgan | The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
It was the gift that kept on grinching.
Last week, at Methodist University Hospital, LesQuenes Smith, 33, donated a kidney to Edwina "Neicie" Jones, 46, a woman Smith knew, until recently, only in passing as a fellow congregant at New Life Holiness Church.
Organ donation may be considered the ultimate gift, but, in this case, it has come with a hefty price tag for the donor.
Since agreeing to the operation, Smith has lost her job (after she told her employer she'd need time off in December for recuperation), had her car repossessed, been reduced to a budget of food stamps, and suffered a post-operation complication that shut down her intestines.
Her five children, ages 3 to 15, who were once just worried about whether or not Santa Claus would visit them, worried for a time that they would have a hospital family Christmas.
Smith, though, didn't regret any of it. "I'm tired," she said groggily over the phone from her hospital bed last week, "but I know this is God's plan for me."
The two women met a few months ago. Serving jointly on a church committee, they went to Jones' home and she mentioned her thrice-weekly dialysis treatments. Smith instinctively offered her own kidney, recalling a frequent childhood prayer that one day she be given the opportunity to give life.
Jones was hesitant. She had been on dialysis for 25 years; she was used to it. She had been told, for her age and in her condition, that the best she could hope for would be what the doctor called a "hoopty" (less viable) kidney. She hadn't even really pursued organ donation, spending 20 years praying for healing instead; but 5 years ago, after a particularly bad episode, she woke up on a respirator, and had been trying for a kidney ever since.
When Smith's tests came back indicating she was a good match, both felt it was a sign. And just like that — the way fiancées might refer to future in-laws as "mom" and "dad" — the women became sisters. "We're friends," said Jones. "But this operation crosses us over into sisters. That's what hospitals can do now."
They bonded over breakfasts and dinners at Waffle House and Perkins. It was surreal, they both said, to share meals with the kidney transfer looming. They both paid more attention to how much salt or sugar the other ate.
"How are you gonna be getting my kidney and you're gonna give yourself diabetes?" Smith joked once when Jones was scooping sugar into her coffee. They laughed (while Jones kept up the pace of spoonfuls).
But there have been tearful moments, too. "We take it for granted," Smith said, her voice breaking, "just to go to the bathroom. Neicie hasn't been able to do that for decades. She can have that dignity now, that privacy, a life: travel, work, comfort."
For the past 25 years, there hasn't been much comfort in Jones' life. She was never supposed to drink more than 32 fluid ounces. She was only able to urinate three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — in sessions that linked a dialysis machine that connected tubing to another chunk of machinery grafted onto her arm or belly or thigh. Each session lasted three or four hours. She logged thousands of hours, totaling entire years of her life.
"I've heard the best part of having kidneys is when you wet yourself," she said before her operation. She laughed. "I know how I sound. I'm not trying to be too candid."
The laughter trailed off, until it was nothing more than a weary sigh. "I've been held underwater for so long," she said. "And you know what happens when you're in that situation and you get free? You float straight to the top. That's me now."
She woke up from her operation, as she put it, "making urine." Adult diapers are due for the next few weeks, but, she quipped, "diapers beat dialysis any day."
For Smith, things are looking up, too. On Thursday, she was released from the hospital after her intestinal trouble, from which she is still recovering. The University of Tennessee Health Science Center, having heard about her situation through the medical grapevine, is providing Christmas presents and food for her children, and checks for the older children, too, to buy their own presents. And they've set up The Smith Family Transplant Support Fund at Regions Bank.