Son recalls kidney transplant that saved father’s life

by Sarah Melton

Kemp Michael might not be alive today if not for his son, Allen Michael, donating a kidney.

On Sunday, Feb. 20, Allen Michael shared his story of being an organ donor at the City of Mount Holly’s eighth annual Black History Forum. In 2001, Kemp Michael, an attorney in Mount Holly, was diagnosed with kidney failure and immediately went on dialysis treatment. Dialysis kept his kidneys working but took a serious toll on his quality of life, his son told the audience.

“It really drains your body of energy,” Allen Michael said. “You don’t feel like doing the things you used to do. It’s a huge time commitment to do that process, and many people aren’t able to work.”

But Kemp Michael kept working. He made arrangements to have his dialysis treatments done at the office. Sometimes, staff had to help him hook up to the dialysis machine. He may not have felt in top-notch condition, but he did not let it affect his ability to help his clients.

“He continued right along, doing work and seeing clients,” Allen Michael said. “He made a decision to do it and not complain. I really admire him for that.”

Despite the medical efforts, Kemp Michael nearly died July 4, 2002, when his potassium levels soared. His son took immediate action.

“At that point, there was no more questioning what to do,” Allen Michael said. “I asked him if I could give him a kidney, and he accepted. It took almost three months to go through the process to see if I was a match, and it turned out, I was a very good match.”

The father and son underwent surgery Oct. 23, 2002, three months after Kemp Michael’s near-death experience. The surgeries went very well, and the two were back to work in a few weeks.

“I’m just very thankful I was able to do this for him, and it meant a lot to him,” Allen Michael said with tears brimming in his eyes. “I want to thank God for allowing me the opportunity to do this for him.”

Allen Michael was one of many speakers who encouraged people to be an organ donor. John Hope, chairman of the city’s Black History Committee, lost his sister to an aneurysm but had no idea she was an organ donor until after her death. Three people received organs – two kidneys and a liver – that once belonged to Hope’s sister. He met one of the recipients and has talked to another one on the telephone.

Debbie Gibbs, public relations manager for LifeShare of the Carolinas, encouraged more blacks to become organ donors. LifeShare is a nonprofit organ-procurement organization designated by the federal government to serve 40 hospitals in 22 counties of southwestern North Carolina. About 4,000 people die each year waiting for a suitable organ donor, Gibbs said.

According to research by Dr. Clive Callender, blacks are more reluctant than some other ethnicities to become organ donors, because they are not given enough information about organ donation and seem to mistrust the medical community.

“People are afraid that if they are in an accident, they will get driven around in an ambulance until they die so their organs can be transplanted to someone else,” Gibbs said. “The other misconception is if people are in a hospital, they aren’t going to be treated properly and the hospital will just try to use you for spare parts. Neither one of these is true.”

Religion also played a role in why blacks have declined signing up to be organ donors. In fact, many religions teach people that their soul goes to heaven, but their body remains in the grave after death, Gibbs said.

“You don’t need to have all your parts to get to heaven,” she said. “When you get to the pearly gates, St. Peter is not going to say, ‘One kidney, one wing.’”

In the United States, 111,000 people are hoping, praying and waiting for that phone call to tell them the organ they need has been found, Gibbs said. For some people, they do not live long enough to get that call.

“Unfortunately, because of the shortage of donors, 18 people die daily, and disproportionately, people of color die more frequently because we need more to donate,” Gibbs said. “About 80,000 people are in need of a kidney transplant. If you are looking at the waiting list in North Carolina.” Sixty percent of those needing a kidney are African-American.

Being a donor is important, but sometimes, informing family members of your decision is even more critical. In June 1994, Gibbs was awoken in the middle of the night by LifeShare. A man had died in a car accident, and she needed to be prepared to talk to family about possibly donating his organs.

Gibbs’ husband was out of town so she told her oldest son, 15, to look after himself and his two brothers while she rushed to the hospital to tend to the deceased man’s family. Once Gibbs arrived, she saw the deceased man, his head wrapped in a bandage, and was told by nurses that he might have been in his 30s, but an exact age had not yet been determined.

“People die one of two ways – your heart or your brain stops,” Gibbs said. “In this case, as a result of the car accident, he no longer had brain activity. His parents got to the hospital and were given the news no parent wants to hear – that their son had died in the accident.”

Within 20 minutes, Gibbs was talking with the man’s parents and brother in the hospital waiting room. She explained the organ donation options, but the family was unsure of their son’s wishes. After the family was given some privacy, they agreed to let their son be an organ donor.

“Even though their son’s life couldn’t be saved, they wanted to save someone else’s life – so other parents wouldn’t have to go through what they were going through,” Gibbs said.

After the family had signed the donation paperwork, Gibbs asked the mother how old her son was when he died. The mother said her son was only 15 years old. A chill went through Gibbs’ spine as she thought about her own 15-year-old son she had left at home.

That young man’s family has since become active volunteers with LifeShare and encourage others to talk to their family about donation wishes before it is too late.

“The parents say they feel good about their decision because their son gave three men, all fathers, a second chance at life,” Gibbs said. “Don’t take your organs to heaven. Heaven knows we need them here.”

To learn more about organ donation, contact LifeShare of the Carolinas at 1-800-932-GIVE (4483) or www.lifesharecarolinas.org.
For more information about the National Kidney Foundation, call 1-800-622-9010 or visit www.kidney.org.

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