How much would you be willing to give to a complete stranger in dire need?
How about a kidney?
“I’ve never been a person that’s wanted to broadcast my need,” said Andy Loman in the quiet of his Augusta home last week. “I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with that.”
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Thus, while most Mainers celebrated Valentine’s Day on Thursday, Loman found himself fixated on the fact that it was also National Donor Day.
As in organ donors.
“There are five stages of kidney failure, and I’m in stage four,” Loman explained. “I’m seriously compromised.”
When he last appeared in this column, on New Year’s Day in 2010, Loman, now 65, was a man reborn.
A heart attack, suffered in 2008 while working out at his local gym, had left him at death’s door with a ventricular assist device implanted in his abdomen. For 13 seemingly endless months, the constantly whirring pump picked up where his damaged heart left off.
Then in April 2009, a 40-year-old man near Worcester, Mass., died and his family agreed to donate all of his organs. The man’s heart now beats inside Loman’s chest.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my heart donor,” said Loman, who reached out via letter to thank the man’s family but never heard back. Their grief, he suspects, prevents them from responding.
For Loman, meanwhile, life was once again good.
A licensed clinical social worker, he went on with his work as manager of co-occurring disorders treatment at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook and at the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.
He resumed his vigorous daily exercise regimen, volunteered at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, taught medical students part-time at Maine Medical Center in Portland and even accepted an appointment to the Augusta Historic Preservation Commission.
But even as his new heart worked like a charm, Loman’s kidneys were in decline. Damaged by the heart attack and ensuing treatment, they’ve deteriorated to the point that his creatinine count — a measure of how well the kidney is removing waste from the body — is now twice what it should be.
Meaning, as Loman’s nephrologist recently told him, he soon will find himself on another transplant waiting list — the one for kidneys.
But this time is different.
Heart transplants obviously depend on someone else’s demise. Yet “live donor” kidney transplants — while we each have two, we can get by perfectly well with just one — happen to the tune of more than 5,000 nationally per year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Some are “directed” donations, meaning a patient obtains a new kidney directly from a relative or friend with the same blood type and a compatible immune system.
Others involve “paired” donations in which a patient and directed donor whose blood types don’t match pair up with a compatible couple in the same situation and, all in the same day, swap donated kidneys so each patient gets a match.
Then there are the “altruistic” donors who simply step up and offer a kidney to whomever might need one.
“Personally, I’ve been working with living donors for six years now and every single one of them are awesome human beings,” said Roxanne Taylor, living-donation coordinator for Maine Medical Center’s Maine Transplant Program.
“They’re heroes,” agreed Mary Biggar, the program’s pre-transplant coordinator.
They’re also outnumbered: Maine Medical Center performed 44 kidney transplants last year. But as of last week, 103 names filled the Maine Transplant Program’s waiting list.
Soon, Loman expects to join that agonizingly long line.
He thought long and hard about going public, again, with his story. But after his own family members were ruled out because of hypertension and other issues, Loman decided he had lots to gain and little to lose by at least asking people to take a moment and consider the whole concept of organ donation.
“I’m not saying, ‘Hey, world, rally around and consider donating your kidney to me,’ ” Loman said. “But if you haven’t checked (the organ donor option) on your license, at least do that. At the very least, do that.”
Then again, if someone happens to have Type A blood like Loman’s and has a kidney they can live without, he’s all ears.
Still, who would do such a thing?
“Crazy people — like me,” replied Liz LaPoint, 43, with a chuckle Saturday from her home in Rochester, N.H. “I like to tell people I donated to a guy I met at a party, which is true.”
His name is Ken. He’s in his early 30s, lives in Maine and is an old college friend of LaPoint’s husband’s cousin.
LaPoint crossed paths with Ken at the cousin’s birthday party back in 2011. The small talk segued into his back story — without a kidney transplant, Ken confided, he was a goner.
“Well, then,” said LaPoint, recalling a childhood friend who lived a perfectly normal life after being born with just one kidney, “I’ll give you one of mine!”
“Yeah,” replied Ken. “Tell me that when you don’t have a beer in your hand.”
It turns out LaPoint, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service who has no children, was serious. So in November 2011, she checked into Maine Medical Center and, just like that, saved a life.
She was out of the hospital the next day. Most donors stay for two or three days.
She was back at work in a month. The federal government provides 30 days’ paid leave to live organ donors.
It didn’t cost her a cent, as any and all medical costs stemming from live organ donation are covered by the recipient’s insurance.
And lest there be any lingering doubt about how giving up a kidney might affect one’s quality of life, let the record show that LaPoint completed the Boston Marathon last spring and has never felt better — in more ways than one.
“I’m doing fine,” she reported. Ken, by the way, is too.
So why did she do such a thing for a complete stranger?
“Because I could,” replied LaPoint. “Why wouldn’t you make that decision and change someone’s life completely? How often do you get an opportunity like that?”
Which brings us back to Andy Loman — and all the others for whom kidney dialysis, at its torturous best, only delays the inevitable.
Loman needs only to put his hand over his steadily beating heart to understand that nothing lasts forever. And he appreciates that organ donation in any form is “a very personal choice” for every last one of us.
But that kidney waiting list is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. And Loman, like those standing in line ahead of him, much prefers the former.
“I’ve contributed to society and I want to continue to contribute,” Loman said. “That’s the bottom line.”
So back to that question, crazy as it might sound:
Can anyone out there spare a kidney?
Bill Nemitz — 791-6323