According to Lao Tzu, “the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” In the case of Nicole, aged 52, her journey started with a night relaxing on the couch with her late husband. “My husband had malignant melanoma and was dying. He wanted to donate his organs but was unable to do so. One night in 2007, we watched a show about kidney donors. It was early, pioneering days of kidney donation. That program, plus my late husband always telling me not to go to bed with regrets set me on my journey.”
The journey would take ten years, but eventually Nicole came to the startling realisation that she wanted to be an altruistic kidney donor— Nicole would be one of 500 people in the UK who choose to donate their kidney to complete strangers. Nicole made a call to QA Hospital. “Once I commit myself to something there is no going back. I met Jenny Frank my Live Donor Coordinator at the hospital…and she scheduled meetings and tests with just about everyone. Before I knew it, I was deemed healthy enough and ready enough to donate."
The only thing Nicole needed was a recipient for her kidney.
For 49 year old Huan, her journey in life was becoming increasingly difficult. Huan had come to the UK from China and was getting her PH.D in Education at the University of Portsmouth—and her kidneys were failing. “I had polycystic kidney disease for a long time. The end result is that you have kidney failure, but that usually only happens to people who are older. I was in my forties and no one—especially me—expected me to be so sick so quickly”
Huan had chronic headaches, swollen ankles, and was so tired and generally unwell that she could barely get out of bed. “I describe myself as half dead most of the time.” Her husband Anthony wanted to donate his kidney to his wife but he didn’t have the correct blood type. Plus, there was the fact that Huan did not want to receive her kidney from a live donor. “What if something happened to them? I didn’t think I could live with the guilt.”
Huan went on dialysis and things looked bleak…especially as two potential kidney donations fell through. Then came the call that all kidney recipients dream of: there was a healthy kidney available and it was a match. Nicole had found her recipient and Huan her donor. However, Huan admits to hesitating. “I didn’t like the feeling that maybe someone would suffer because of me. I know that is strange. But Jenny, my Live Organ Coordinator, reminded me that the donor was going to donate no matter what and so it would be me or someone else.”
Huan had the surgery and she gets emotional when she talks about the change the donation meant to her. “As soon as I woke up…I know it sounds strange because I was on all kinds of medication, but my headache was gone. I started to cry. I could not believe how much better I felt.” The cloudiness in her head had disappeared. “I was actually hungry!” she says.
In the midst of her joy, Hua felt worried about her donor. As is allowed, she wrote a letter to her anonymous donor explaining how grateful she was. She gave it to Jenny to give to the stranger who changed her life.
Two weeks later she heard back. Nicole had written: “Hi my name is Nicky and I have a dog and two sisters.” She left her email and told Huan to contact her. The two women began corresponding. “My husband emailed her, too. He was so grateful as well.”
Eventually the two women decided to meet. “We wanted someplace ‘safe’” Nicole says. “We decided to meet in the waiting room at QA Hospital.” From the very beginning the two women hit it off and a genuine friendship ensued.
“Normally we see each other once a week if we can. We certainly talk a couple of times a week.” Nicole says. The pair has met each other’s families—and cannot imagine life without the other. Nicole even attended Huan’s graduation ceremony at Portsmouth University.
“We have been through so much,” Huan says. “And Nicky has such a sense of humour. She even named her kidneys. I have Grace and hers is called Alice. So when she calls she always asks about Grace and when I call her I ask after Alice. And so far they both are doing fine!”