At the age of 60, Suzanne is like many other women her age. She’s exercising, working full-time and spending a lot of her time chasing after her four precious grandchildren. What sets her apart is the incredible gift she gave her daughter Angela two years ago. Suzanne donated a kidney to Angela to give her daughter a second chance at life.
In 2012, when Angela was just 26 years old, she was diagnosed with kidney disease. She’d gone to the doctor after feeling tired, but no one was prepared for the diagnosis they were given. Doctors rushed Angela to hospital when they discovered she was running on just 15 per cent kidney function.
She eventually had a biopsy where doctors discovered she had chronic scarring on both kidneys – caused by an unknown allergic reaction she’d had to medication she’d been taking for a decade to deal with a mild case of Crohn’s.
“It hadn’t been picked up, so the scarring was irreversible,” Suzanne told Starts at 60. “They said it would improve, but not 100 per cent and that a transplant was inevitable.”
Unlike a lot of people requiring a kidney transplant, Angela wasn’t put on a waiting list. She was eligible for what is known as a pre-emptive transplant, purely because the family had time to make a decision and find a donor. Besides feeling tired, Angela continued to function and wasn’t symptomatic of having kidney failure. In fact, her kidney function improved to about 25 per cent in the years that followed.
After giving birth to her son, Angela’s function dramatically dropped to 14 per cent, which was when the transplant team decided to take action. They flew from Melbourne to Tasmania in 2016. Suzanne, who had previously had all the tests in order to donate her kidney, was an excellent tissue match, but her blood type was different.
“Over a period of months, I had many tests,” Suzanne recalled. “A lot of blood tests, a lot of scans, MRIs, heart stress tests, urine tests, all sorts of things.”
She discovered she was relatively healthy for her age and that she’d still be able to donate a kidney, even if it didn’t end up with her daughter. Thankfully, the transplant team found she was still an eligible match and both Suzanne and Angela flew to Melbourne for the transplant. In preparation, Angela had four sessions of plasma exchange to ensure her body accepted her mother’s kidney. As is the case with all transplants, there is always a possibility the body will reject the new organ.
Suzanne described the operation as the easy part of the journey and that the peripheral stuff that was harder. The operation was a success and she was on her feet the next day, before being released from hospital after five days.
As for Angela, she remained in hospital for eight days and was required to visit hospital doctors every day for six weeks.
“Her recovery was a bit slower because her body was getting used to a new kidney,” Suzanne said. “She’s got to take a lot of different medications and we were [in Melbourne] for six weeks in total. During those six weeks, you’ve got to have your medication changed virtually every day to try and balance them so your body is accepting that kidney so it won’t reject.”
Two years on, life couldn’t be better for Suzanne or Angela. Angela’s son is now three and she works full-time with her partner. She’s been able to continue life thanks to the incredible gift from her mother. Still, they know it doesn’t always work out this way and it can be a longer process for others in Australia relying on organ donation.
In Australia, there are currently 1,400 people and their families waiting for a life-saving organ to become available. While Suzanne was a match for Angela, they could have been put on a waiting list if it didn’t work out.
Registering as an organ or tissue donor is as simple as visiting donatelife.gov.au, the only national organ and tissue register in the country. More than 6.5 million Australians have already registered their decision online, while registering your interest through your driver’s licence is now only an option in South Australia.
“They’re counting on the generosity of the donor and the family that are willing to give that life,” Suzanne added. “It just gives them a second chance at life and they can experience the love and joy and the adventure that life has to offer.”