Tammy Timmons reconnected with cousin John Weiner at a family reunion 10 years ago. Not long after, she gave him one of her kidneys.
At the reunion, Tammy learned John had polycystic kidney disease. This inherited disorder causes clusters of noncancerous cysts containing water-like fluid to develop in the kidneys, eventually leading to kidney failure.
John’s kidneys were deteriorating, and he was enduring dialysis three times a week. After four years, the process had taken its toll. He had lost 100 pounds, and his condition was worsening daily.
“I was failing really bad at the time,” John recalls.
Tammy, a BKD office accountant in Denver, decided without hesitation she would donate her kidney to John if they were a match.
“I’m a healthy person,” she says. “I knew you can live with one kidney with no issues, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”
After confirming she was a match, the procedure was set for October 16, 2007.
Nerves of Steel
The day of the procedure, Tammy says she wasn’t nervous at all, adding, “I might have a screw loose or something, but no, I really wasn’t.” She was confident in the doctors and staff at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
John also didn’t have any reservations beforehand. He’d already come to terms with the fact that he might not have much time left.
“I put it in God’s hands and relaxed,” he says. “I had faced the possibility of dying for the last year. I had made my peace with that, so I didn’t have anything to worry about.”
The doctors and staff completed the operation with no complications. Kidney donors can expect to be in the hospital for up to a week and may not be able to drive for up to two weeks. In general, the process is more difficult for the donor than the recipient.
“If that’s the case, then something went terribly wrong, because I was up and out of bed that evening,” Tammy jokes.
She waited at the hospital for four days until John was ready to be discharged, and then she drove him home herself.
A Silver Lining
Since the transplant, John’s life has mostly returned to normal. While the obvious benefit of an unexpectedly extended life is the biggest change, he’s also been able to forgo dialysis.
John also found a silver lining. Had he remained healthy, he would likely still be in Washington, where he was living when he was diagnosed. Instead, he moved back to Nebraska to be near family and was subsequently able to spend more time with his parents. Because of this, John says, “the whole thing has really been a blessing.”
John’s positivity must be a family trait, because Tammy has a similar outlook. She had no regrets about donating her kidney, which isn’t always the outcome. Donors sometimes experience depression, anxiety or anger, but Tammy focused primarily on the improvements in John’s life—her life didn’t change.
“I got another scar, whoop-de-doo,” she says. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
A short time after the transplant, John wanted to repay Tammy somehow, though he admitted “nothing compared to what she gave to me.” Still, he wanted to show his appreciation in a tangible way.
Knowing Tammy had always wanted a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, he purchased a 2004 Softail Classic, rode it to Denver and delivered it to her personally.
Tammy and John have kept in touch; they talk regularly and visit in person at least once a year.
Tammy’s daughter, Gina Porter, was profoundly affected by her mother’s act of selflessness. Gina says even though she was only 20 at the time, her mom’s willingness to donate really resonated.
“It made me look at my life and the way I treat people,” she says.
Gina was so moved by her mother’s sacrifice that she got a tattoo in honor of it. The tattoo has three elements:
- A rose, because Tammy has a rose tattoo
- A green ribbon, symbolizing organ donation awareness
- The phrase “Mo chuisle mo chroí,” which is Gaelic for “My pulse of my heart”—a reference to “Million Dollar Baby,” a film that holds personal significance for Tammy and Gina
Tammy also had her own revelations thanks to the life-giving experience.
“You have to be you, you have to be positive, you have to go forward and when you mess up, say you’re sorry and mean it,” she says.
'If You’re Healthy, Why Not?'
Today, Tammy, John and Gina are all strong organ donation advocates. Increasing awareness about what those in need go through is important, Tammy says. She encourages others to think about donating a kidney, because dialysis takes an enormous amount of time and energy.
John’s sentiment is similar. He asks anyone considering the process to put themselves in the shoes of a family that might lose a loved one—someone who could otherwise survive with a donated organ.
“All my kids are donors,” he says. “I didn’t ask them to be.”
Inspired by her mother, Gina also is an organ donor and says she’d certainly consider a living donation if a family member or friend came to her in need.
For more information on being a living donor, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing website.