Local woman finds kidney donor in PSJ

It takes a lot of heart to give a kidney.

Oak Grove resident Susan Gay had lived with polycystic kidney disease all her life, but after beginning dialysis treatment two years ago, she received some troubling news late last year.

Without a kidney transplant, doctors said there were no guarantee she would live to see 2020.

With more than 93,000 people nationwide on the kidney transplant waiting list, Gay knew her odds of finding a donor were slim.

According to the Living Donors Kidney Network, the wait for a deceased donor alone could be five years, and in some states, closer to 10. An average of 80 percent of the patients on the list are also on dialysis treatments and for those with  kidney disease, a transplant can double a person’s life expectancy.

Troubled by the news but not hopeless, Gay first turned to her two brothers. Though many live donors are related to the patients, tests showed she and her brothers were not compatible, because of Gay’s blood type.

That same blood type O-positive, put Gay in a Catch-22. While she can donate blood to anyone, she can only receive O-positive blood, which is found in just 38 percent of the U.S. population.

Not content to wait on the transplant list, Gay took matters into her own hands.

“I knew if I didn’t get proactive I would die on dialysis,” Gay said. “I wasn’t going to sit around and wait. It’s horrible, the whole dialysis thing.”

Gay wrote her plea for help on the back window of her SUV in August of last year, noting her search for a kidney and listing her blood type and phone number.

Life, and dialysis treatments continued on.

In October, Gay’s phone rang.

Port St. Joe resident Jennifer Bland-Watson was riding to work with her husband Christian, when she spotted Gay’s car.

Knowing that she was O-positive, she jotted down the phone number and went on with her day as a teacher at North Florida Child Development Center, working with students between the ages of 2 and 3.

The plea for life seen on the back window of the car stuck with Bland-Watson throughout the day and she quickly came to the realization that she could be the one to save Gay’s life.

“I donate blood a lot, so I knew my blood type,” Bland-Watson said. “I’m also an organ donor. I like helping people. I like the feeling it gives me, helping someone out.”

After talking it over with her husband, Bland-Watson decided that if she could, she would be willing to give her kidney to Gay.

“That’s just the type of person she is,” Christian said. “She puts others before herself. At first I was nervous, but no matter what she does I’ll support her.”

Face-to-face

After getting the call, Gay suggested the two get together to talk about the process, meeting up at the McDonald’s in Port St. Joe.

It was there that two strangers, about to change each other’s life, met face-to-face for the first time.

“I was a little nervous,” Bland-Watson said. “What if she had already found someone? Plus, I’ve never had surgery before.

“I couldn’t help but think, what if that was me, begging and crying for someone to help?”

After spending time getting to know one another and learning about the transplant process, Bland-Watson said she knew she was on board.

And while she was keenly aware the road wasn’t going to be an easy one, she said she was taken with Gay’s positive attitude and zest for life.

There was also one other thing that came up during their conversation, which helped to solidify Bland-Watson’s decision.

Gay’s granddaughter.

“I lost my grandmother very young,” Bland-Watson said. “Once I found out Susie had a granddaughter of her own, I didn’t want her to be without hers. It felt like she was me in a future time. I knew I would do it.”

Despite Bland-Watson’s good will, there were still plenty of tests to be done before she could officially offer to become Gay’s live donor.

In December the two traveled to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), considered to be one of the best hospitals in the nation for transplant patients.

UAB’s kidney transplant department began in 1968 and averages 300 transplants per year, conducting active clinical trials and research efforts to make the process easier and more successful.

There, Bland-Watson underwent a series of procedures including X-rays, an MRI, CT scans, a nuclear stress test and met with the transplant doctors.

“I had a list of procedures and I was just checking them off the list,” Bland-Watson said. “It was a lot of tests. A lot of needles. The doctors at UAB were very nice and eased a lot of my fears.”

And even with tests complete, results would need to come from a lab, which required several weeks of analysis before the match could be confirmed.

Gay said she worried that this was her only shot at finding a kidney and the waiting period didn’t make things any less stressful.

“I was ready to give up,” Gay said. “But if I quit dialysis, the doctors said I would be dead in 10 days.”

It was Christmas Eve when Bland-Watson got a phone call from doctors at UAB.

It was a match.

She immediately called Gay to relay the good news.

“I started crying,” Gay said. “It was a Christmas miracle.”

Ready for surgery

Last week Gay marked her official surgery date on the calendar for Monday, Feb. 22.

Following the procedure Gay will have an extended stay in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit before being moved to a townhouse near the hospital. She will visit with doctors daily for blood tests and check-ups to ensure her body isn’t rejecting the organ.

After recovering, she will visit the hospital once a year for a biopsy on the kidney, which will be mounted in her midsection.

For Bland-Watson, the laparoscopic surgery will put her on bed rest for just four weeks.

“My students don’t understand why I’m going to be gone, but I have very supportive co-workers,” Bland-Watson said.

Despite the big decision, Bland-Watson said her (and her family’s) mind was put at ease when she learned that should complications require her to get a kidney transplant of her own, live donors go straight to the top of the list.

To help financially support Bland-Watson during her time off, Gay has organized a fundraiser at 6 p.m. ET Saturday, Feb. 20 at the  John C. Gainous VFW Post 10069 in Highland View.

After hearing her story, Gay said the VFW Auxiliary volunteered to provide both the space and the food for the fundraiser.

“Jennifer has given me a gift and I want to help her in return,” Gay said. “It’s unbelievable the help we’ve had from the community. Everywhere we go, people are willing to help when they hear our story.”

Tickets for the spaghetti dinner, available at the VFW, are $8 for adults and $4 for children under 10.

To raise additional funds, a silent auction, bake sale and 50/50 drawing will be held at the event. Auction items will include gift cards from local businesses, original art and more. Those who wish to donate items for the silent auction may contact event coordinator JoAnn at 330-979-3935. The VFW is located at 1774 Trout Ave.

“I’m so excited that someone stepped up,” Gay said. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Who would do that for a stranger?

“She’s an angel.”