A daughter gives the gift of a lifetime

african kings

As Christmas approaches, one mother has already received the gift of a lifetime — a few months early.

Kristi Nelson was sitting in the airport when her phone rang and she got the news: she was a match for her mother, Helen Nelson, who was in need of a kidney.

“I called [my mom],” Kristi recalls. “And said hey… I’m compatible.”

Her mother was happy, but shocked. Kristi had kept the testing a secret.

“My dad wanted to [donate], but my dad is in his 70s,” Kristi says. “I was the only person in the family who was completely healthy.”

Helen’s kidneys had stopped working nearly two years prior. While she waited for a transplant, she spent a mandatory three days a week receiving dialysis, where a large machine filtered her blood for three hours at a time — doing the job her kidneys once did.

“It took so much time out of your life,” Helen recalls. “It was not an altogether bad thing, but it’s one of those things that if you didn’t have to do it in your life you don’t want to.”

“It makes you tired, weak and worn,” she adds.

Seeing her mom going through this process, Kristi knew she had to get tested.

“My heart just ached for her,” she said. “I didn’t want her to have to wait two or three years for a kidney donor.”

Twenty million Americans live with chronic kidney disease — 325,000 are on dialysis and 128,000 are living with a kidney transplant. One-third of those are African-American.

African-Americans also develop kidney disease an average ten years earlier than whites, and have the greatest need for kidney transplants. Some spend up to ten years waiting for either a living or recently deceased donor.

“We have the greatest need for these organs,” says Kristi. “And we’re the least likely to donate.”

Yet, like many others, Kristi had her own concerns.

“It was scary,” she recalls. “I had never had major illness or major surgery.”

She also worried what would happen if she developed a kidney problem herself and needed a transplant as a result.

“I talked to a lot of friends [who said], ‘Absolutely not. I would never do that. That’s so dangerous,’” Kristi says. “It was all of the negatives.”

As she looks at her mother and how it’s benefited her, Kristi knows it was worth it. But, she agrees that it’s not a decision for everyone.

“I think in a lot of these stories, the outcome is all great and it’s wonderful that people want to put themselves on the line,” Kristi says. “But it’s okay to have concerns and doubts.”

Helen feels that having donors and recipients speak out more about the process of donation would take some of the fear out of it.

“It’s not as terrible as we think in our mind, and it’s okay to be able to give and donate an organ,” she says.

Diabetes is the number one cause of kidney disease, with high blood pressure at number two — both illnesses prevalent among African-Americans.

“More people are going to go on dialysis, and more and more people are going to need transplants,” says Kristi. ”[We want to] help them understand that connection.”Since the early stages of kidney disease have no symptoms, getting regular physicals are key.

HIV, drug abuse, and conditions such as lupus and focal segmental glomerulosclerosis also damage kidneys. FSGS was responsible for both basketball stars Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliot developing kidney failure and requiring transplants.

Aside from the small pools of donors whose genetics match African-Americans on the transplant list, research also shows that kidneys from black donors do not last as long as those from non-black donors.

For now, the Nelsons continue to celebrate their happy ending just in time for the holidays.

Six weeks after the August surgery, Kristi was completely healed. She went back to work at four weeks.

Her mother, Helen, had a longer recovery, battling complications from the surgery. However, her kidney has worked since day one, and has never stopped functioning well. She has since celebrated her 70th birthday and is currently out of the hospital.

“You do have a little pain, and there are a few restrictions, like eating and taking medications at a certain time,” Helen explains about having a transplant. “But, those are not hard things.”

It is especially easier than having dialysis, she says.

“You don’t have the loss of control of your life [anymore]. You can travel. You can move around. You feel better.”

The mother-daughter duo now speaks out about their experiences, aiming to demystify the process and create awareness.

Meanwhile Helen, who is no longer tied to the dialysis chair three times a week, has goals.

“I plan to travel a little bit more… probably a cruise,” she says.