WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — It’s called the Twin City, Camel City, even simply, Winston. But to some, Winston-Salem is known as the “transplant capital” of the state. At least when it comes to kidneys.
“Each kind of have their unique experience of how they’ve come to decide that they want to donate a kidney,” said Dr. Colleen Jay, Living Kidney Donor Program director at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist.
As Jay explained, the medical center does about 220 to 240 kidney transplants a year.
“That makes us the busiest in the state of North Carolina and one of the busiest in the southeast,” she added.
As Jay also detailed, there are more than 90,000 Americans waiting on the deceased donor list.
“Many people will wait many, many years, and some of them will never get to transplant in time,” she said.
To bridge that gap, it’s going to take people like Laura Laxton.
“We had a family friend, she needed a kidney, so I figured what the heck, I would see if I qualified,” Laxton said.
Laxton began the process at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, which starts with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“They do a very thorough job of vetting not only your physical health, but your emotional, mental health, and do you understand what you’re getting into,” Laxton said.
As Jay detailed, prospective donors will then get a questionnaire about their health history. They’ll undergo blood and urine testing. Specialists will get a picture of the person’s overall health, and kidney health, looking for things like the possibility of diabetes.
If the testing goes well, the person will go in for a visit, meet with several staff members, and undergo imaging to make a plan for possible surgery. Ultimately, a committee meeting is held, where the person will either be approved or declined.
“By the time I was qualified to become a donor, I had decided that even if I was not a match for my friend, somebody was getting a kidney,” Laxton recalled.
As Laxton explained, opinions were mixed amongst her family members.
“My husband was 100 percent for me doing whatever I wanted to do, from the word ‘go,’ and my children were very supportive,” she said. “My mom was just, ‘well, but what if you need a kidney down the road?’”
However, many of those concerns were quelled by the donor system itself. If someone donates an organ, then their child ends up needing one, they get prioritized through a voucher program. If a donor ends up needing the organ, they’re moved to the top of the deceased donor list.
While Laxton was not a match for her friend, she was a match for someone she’d never met. In the early morning hours of November 16, 2021, she went in for the surgery.
“My maternal grandmother, who was nearly 102, she was dying. She actually died two days before I donated my kidney,” Laxton said. “But she was very much of the, ‘if you can be of help, then go be of help.’”
Thanks to her donation, her friend was also moved up the donor list, Laxton explained.
“The next thing I remember I was in my room, they had taken me to my room, and the surgeon from the recipient had come in and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know, the surgery went really well. The kidney’s already functioning,” she said. “That was fantastic news to hear.”
Today, Laxton says her life is just as it was before the surgery.
“Your expected physical function, longevity, the things you can do after you recover from surgery, are exactly the same,” Jay explained.
“This was one of those experiences that was just all-around good. Everything about it was good,” Laxton said.
Now, in addition to everything she did beforehand, Laxton says she also tries to convince other people they, too, can give the gift of life.
“Everyone who’s been, ‘oh, I don’t know if I could do that,’ I’m like, ‘you totally could, if I could do it, you totally could do that,’” she said. “You’ve just gotta decide if that’s right for you.”
April is National Donate Life Month, featuring activities to encourage organ donor registration.