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What do you say to a family whose loss has given you a second chance at life?
That’s a question Bedford resident Carla Boyer, 46, has been asking herself since she received a kidney transplant just over two months ago.
Boyer knows the gender of her donor, though in an effort to protect the family, she prefers to keep that information to herself. She also knows her donor was the same age as she, and that this person’s last wish was to donate every viable organ doctors could take.
“The family stood by [the] decision,” and kept their loved one on life support so doctors could remove organs that would give others hope, she explained. “Even though it’s been a long road for me, I’m really grateful. … It’s been a real life-changing experience.”
Boyer was born with poor kidneys. Her right kidney never fully developed when she was an infant, and four years ago her left kidney began to fail. Since that time, she’d been leaving her house at 4 a.m. three days a week for dialysis – a procedure that took three to three-and-half hours each time.
Now, the only thing to remind her of those days is the fistula implanted in her right bicep. During dialysis, a patient is connected to machines through the fistula, which draws out the patient’s blood so that it can circulate through machines that remove waste and water – the work that the kidneys normally would do. The blood is then routed back into the body through the fistula.
It’s a permanent reminder of a painful process; once a fistula is implanted, they cannot be removed, Boyer said.
At the time she began dialysis, Boyer was placed on the organ donor registry, hoping someday to receive a kidney. She said her sister and her mother both were tested to see if they could be donors, but medical issues prevented that option.
She thought she would be on dialysis the rest of her life. But she and her family always held out hope. In fact, she said, the weekend of Sept. 15, she and her family took a trip to The Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where her 7-year-old daughter Jasmine made a specific request to Santa.
“She said, ‘I want my mommy to get a kidney,’ ” Boyer recalled. Santa’s reply was to her: “He said, ‘I have a feeling you’ll get a kidney.’ ”
And just days later, Sept. 18, Boyer was undergoing dialysis when she got the news that there was a kidney for her that was a match. “They said, ‘It’s yours if you want it,’” Boyer recalled. “It seemed like a dream.”
The reality didn’t hit until she was being rolled into surgery the very next day. Boyer said she was still awake and happened to see the kidney that would soon be hers. “I thought of the family as I got this gift,” she said, adding that before they put her under anesthesia, the surgeon led everyone in a prayer for the donor and that family.
“No words can express the emotional side of it,” she said, brushing away tears. But, she was comforted knowing the donor “made a choice for someone to have a second chance. I got a second chance to be a mother, a family member and a friend.”
She has written a letter to the family that she plans to take with her to her next checkup, in which she expresses her gratitude and offers them a chance to meet with her. “It’s their choice,” she said.
In the meantime, however, Boyer has made it her mission to spread the word about the importance of becoming an organ donor.
“Part of me wants to get the word out because I know there are a lot of people who don’t live long enough to see a transplant,” she said, adding that several people she knew at the dialysis clinic had died waiting on the list.
According to the OrganDonor.gov, 116,528 Americans are awaiting an organ transplant; 18 people die each day, waiting. Just one donor can save as many as eight lives.
Every chance she gets, Boyer wears a “Trust for Life” T-shirt – a gift from family friend Laman Stark, Carroll County’s Circuit Court clerk, who also sent her a bouquet of yellow roses after her surgery and calls to check up on her frequently.
“I love her to death. She’s one of a kind,” Stark said, adding that he’s known Boyer and her mother, Carrollton resident Patsy Stewart, for more than 25 years.
To his knowledge, Stark said Boyer is the first person from the area who has benefited from the program he has supported since he was elected clerk in 2001. “She thinks I’ve done all of these things for her. I haven’t done anything,” he said. “She’s benefited because someone took the time to put their name on the organ donor registry.”
Stark believes Boyer will be a great spokesperson for the program, and he’s hoping to get her involved in an advertising campaign – not just because of her enthusiasm and gratitude, but also because, as a hearing-impaired person, she also can communicate using sign language.
“She may [inspire] someone to get on the registry,” he said.
The Trust for Life was initiated by Kentucky’s Circuit Court Clerks in 1992. By law, Stark said, every person obtaining a Kentucky drivers license is asked two questions: First, they are asked to donate $1 to the trust, which funds research and awareness programs for organ and tissue donation; second, they are asked if they wish to be added to the National Organ Donor Registry.
“It’s a personal choice, but we’ve got to ask,” he said.
In October, Stark said, 55 percent of the 214 residents who obtained or renewed their drivers license in Carroll County contributed a dollar, placing Carroll 26th among the state’s 120 counties for the month.
Also last month, “we added 29 people to the registry,” he said, adding that 2,836 Carroll County residents have signed up for the registry since May 2007.
“That’s good for a county of our size. And it’s a good thing, because you just never know when something can happen. It could be a family member, friend or your neighbor” who may find themselves in need of an organ transplant, he said.
In Trimble County, the numbers are even better. According to TrustforLife.org, 61 percent of the 201 residents obtaining a drivers license donated a dollar in October – putting Trimble in the No. 11 spot statewide. Also, 21 people signed on to the donor registry, bringing the total of Trimble residents registered to 2,973 since 2007.
As she recuperates from her surgery, Boyer said is careful to follow doctors’ orders and maintains a complicated regimen that involves taking nearly 20 different medications at specific times daily. She checks her blood pressure twice a day and drinks as much water as she can. She is determined to take care of herself and honor the gift she’s been given.
And she is thankful to everyone who has helped her along the way – her mother and sister; her “better half,” Brad Smith and his mother, Janice; friend Carolyn Jones; and the pastor and congregation at the English Christian Church.
“I thought that taking this journey was something I would have to do by myself,” she said, adding that she finds it difficult “to express the appreciation I have to those who have been there through this journey and the darkest time, when I was on dialysis.”
And she’s thankful for her daughters, Jasmine and Ashlea, 23, who graduated this year from the University of Louisville – an event Boyer said she didn’t think she’d live to see.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my daughters. They have both been a real blessing,” she said. “Just to hear [Jasmine] at the Fall Festival at Bedford Elementary School, singing with the chorus, it really meant a lot to me – more than it probably would have if I was still on dialysis. Because, without my donor and kidney, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
For more information about organ donation and the National Organ Donor Registry, visit OrganDonor.gov or TrustForLife.org.