Cynthia Bowers longed to help others, but didn't have a lot of money. Then, with her daughter Laura, she found a way to give something money couldn't buy life.
The mother and daughter, members of the Oquirrh 5th Ward, West Jordan Utah Oquirrh Stake, are two of 20 people who have donated a kidney to a stranger through Intermountain Donor Services' Good Samaritan program in Utah.
She first learned about the program in early 2003, but her desire to help started two years earlier, when one of her daughters, Amy, died of cancer.
"I didn't have a chance to save my own daughter," said the mother of six. "How could I let someone lose a daughter when I knew what it was like to lose a daughter?"
So when she heard co-workers were holding a bake sale for a colleague who had two daughters with kidney problems, she responded. Sister Bowers' colleague had already given a kidney to help one of her daughters. That kidney had lasted 10 years and then failed. So the family was now relying on the nation's transplant list, which includes more than 65,000 people waiting for a kidney.
Soon, Sister Bowers learned another co-worker had offered her kidney to help the family.
The co-worker's operation was a success, but soon the family's second daughter also needed a kidney.
Sister Bowers was impressed. "That is something I could do," she thought.
Sister Bowers asked her children if they would mind if she stepped forward. Laura, a returned missionary who served in the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission, not only supported the idea but also made a simple pledge. "If your kidney doesn't work, I will offer mine," she told her mother.
Testing proved Laura to be a closer match than her mother. She donated her kidney in August 2003.
The day after the surgery, the kidney recipient came to Laura's room to ask how she was feeling. "It is hard for people to understand who don't go through it," said Laura of the emotional meeting.
Sister Bowers then joined the national registry. Anyone could have her kidney that needed it, she determined.
Church policy states that the decision to donate an organ is left to the individual. Potential organ recipients should counsel with medical professionals and receive a confirmation through prayer, according to Church policy.
As part of the organ-donation process, potential donors go through strict physical and emotional testing. Donors are not allowed to give if it would hurt them physically or if there is not the prospects of a good outcome for the recipient.
On Jan. 15, 2004, she gave her kidney to a man she did not know before the transplant process began. He was a grandfather. He couldn't believe someone was willing to help him. "It is so fun to see him and his family and think I have been able to do something wonderful with my life," said Sister Bowers.
Paula Mark, Good Samaritan Coordinator for Intermountain Donor Services, said the program first started in 2003. Today, she added, 20 people who needed a kidney now have one. "That is 20 people that are not on the list anymore," she said. "The donors tell us it is so rewarding. For the recipients it is self-explanatory."
After a transplant, recipients describe life as "getting back to normal. They get to do things they had to stop doing, like swimming or just living," she said. While dialysis can prolong life for those who suffer from kidney failure, she added, it is a hard way to live. Patients feel sick before the procedure and tired afterward.
The number of people who needed a kidney transplant nationally exceeded 60,000 for the first time in October 2004, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. The kidney is the organ most commonly transplanted and most commonly needed. Kidney failure can occur from a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, hypertension and diseases that damage the specialized cells of the kidney.
In 2003 the year Laura gave her kidney a record total of 15,137 kidney transplants were performed nationwide, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. More than 40 percent of the transplants came from living donors who provided one of their two healthy kidneys. Doctors say there is little risk in living with one kidney because the remaining kidney compensates to do the work of both kidneys.
Laura was nervous before the surgery, but deep down she knew it was the right thing for her to do. "I thought, 'The Lord is going to take care of us.' "
Like her mother, she had seen her sister suffer through cancer. That experience made her more aware of families suffering when a loved one is ill. She has no regrets.
Neither does her mother. "I really wish I could do it again," said Sister Bowers, who was fully recovered within six weeks and back to work.
In January, she celebrated the two-year anniversary of her donation. She recalls the meeting in which she met the recipient of her kidney. "We sat down and talked. He came over and hugged me and said, 'Thank you so much.'
"It just gives you such a thrill to know that you can save someone's life."
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