Health Care

National Donor Day 2012: Transplant recipient hopes to give back through nursing, outreach

The LifeLink Foundation wants you to consider giving a gift today, but what they’re asking for isn’t a box of chocolates or roses.

Today is National Donor Day and the Georgia-based non-profit organization, along with many other organ- and tissue-donation focused groups, are asking for people to consider giving the gift of life.

Thirty-three-year-old Amber Downs, a Columbus native, received a double transplant four years ago that changed her life. After her surgery, Downs completed her Registered Nursing degree and makes her living giving back to the community and helping those who face a situation similar to hers.

She currently volunteers through LifeLink, speaking to community groups about the importance of being an organ and tissue donor and helping out at an annual summer camp for children who need or have had transplants.

Downs recently sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer to discuss her transplant, her inspiration to speak out and how the experience has helped her become a better nurse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start off with you telling me a little of your donor story.

I received a pancreas and a kidney. I’m a little unique because they don’t do many double transplants -- I think they do maybe 15 or 16 a year at Emory (Healthcare, in Atlanta). So I’m a little unique and extremely blessed in that respect.

At 10 I got (diagnosed with) type I diabetes and then nine years ago I had my child and that’s what made my kidneys stop working. So it took about two years for my kidneys to completely shut down and that’s when I went on the transplant list. So then after two years of being on dialysis that’s when I got a phone call, and that was in 2008, and they had the pancreas and the kidney. It had to be a non-living donor and that’s just because a pancreas, they do partial pancreas transplants, but to get an entire pancreas it has to come from a non-living donor.

Why do you think it’s so important for there to be a National Donor Day and why do you choose to speak out?

I’ve just met so many amazing people who wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing if they hadn’t had that gift.

And also I got my transplant in January of 2008 and I was just very motivated after that, just what a huge miracle and difference that made. That summer I went to a camp where there are children who are waiting on transplants and then there’s also children who had transplants and of course the counselors, most of them, have had transplants.

It was really, really neat. And kids they don’t think, “Oh I can’t believe I can’t do this,” it doesn’t even catch their step. They are so grateful to just have what they have. It just moved me.

I think once you get a gift like this though, you feel obligated. You do. Because it’s just, like, gratitude I guess, I just feel like I should give back. And this summer I want to go back to the camp, since I’ve got my RN, and I want to help in the clinic instead, helping with the dialysis since I have experience with dialysis.

Their stories are so motivating and you just feel compelled by them because they’re not giving up. They’re choosing to fight that fight and not to just (give up). And I find that so inspiring.

What was that time period like for you while you were waiting for a donor?

I was on hemo-dialysis, which is where they do the blood dialysis, I would go on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I would sit for four hours on a machine and it pulls all your blood out and cleans it. And I think I probably would have had a lot of problems with it but I fell out at Emory, just passed out, and when I woke up they said “We’ve got to start dialysis now. Your kidney has completely failed.” (And that was) actually the day I was going to be put on the (donor) list.

And I’m like “Oh, I feel so sorry for myself.” But when I got wheeled into dialysis, that’s a huge clinic up there at Emory. So I’m sitting next to little children who are bald-headed because they have cancer and they’re on dialysis. And I think to myself, “It’s really not that bad.” Just how profound that was, I think there was a reason that it happened like that. That way I could tell that this wasn’t the end of the world, I’ve got a lot going on compared to (some).

It was a rough time when I was on dialysis, but when I got my transplant, you know like getting back up on your feet I felt kind of like Bambi, You have to get used to your new legs. My kidney worked so good that it dried my pancreas out so I got pancreatitis it was like the two organs were fighting each other over who was going to work better. Once I got that straightened out, I really haven’t had any more problems.

Do you think that going through this and having that experience has made you a better nurse?

Oh yeah. And I always make jokes that when I go in -- I work on a kidney and heart floor -- so when I go in and they want to tell me, “Oh, you don’t understand anything about dialysis,” I say “I understand more than you know.”

I tell them that I know how hard it is to be compliant, but the better you do the better you’re going to feel.

Have your patients responded better to you because you’ve had some of the same experiences?

I think that when I come in, they’re already irritated with me, like “You’re a young person, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t want to hear you tell me I gotta take my medicines.” And I tell them, “Look, I’ve been there. I’ve got the scars to prove it. I have my badge of courage.”

And they do all of a sudden become a completely different person.

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