Five to 8 years: That’s how long it would take for Tracy Shearin-Drayton to get the new kidney she needed. Donor organs come along on a regular basis, her doctors told her, but not enough to match the number of people who need them. That was March 2018.
In the meantime, Tracy, who lives in Thomasville, NC, took medication and started dialysis. On at least 3 days of every week, Tracy spent -- and continues to spend -- several hours a day connected by tubes to a machine that does what her kidneys used to do: removing excess waste, chemicals, and fluid from her blood.
And that’s how Tracy saw her life for the foreseeable future.
That was until November 5, 2019. That’s when Pam Oast showed up at her hospital door with a sign that read: “Will you be my kidney sista?”
Lupus: When Your Body Injures Itself
Tracy has lupus, an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. Symptoms vary widely, but they can include joint pain and swelling, fever, skin lesions, and brain fog. She was diagnosed around 2010.
In 2016, the disease began to cause serious health problems. Over the next couple of years, her body started to retain huge amounts of fluid. At one point, she was coughing up blood. At another, she was delirious and didn’t know what was going on around her. Once, while she was throwing up profusely, she fell unconscious and remained that way, in the hospital, for 3 days. Between 2016 and today, she’s been hospitalized six times for 2 weeks or more at a time.
One of the major problems was that the lupus had damaged Tracy’s kidneys. More than half of people with lupus will have some kidney problems, typically within about 5 years after they first have symptoms of the disease. About 15%-20% of those people end up needing dialysis or a new kidney.
2016 was also the year Tracy’s daughter, Jada, entered kindergarten. Her teacher was Pam Oast. Jada and Pam “just meshed.” “It was a huge relief,” she says. At least Jada was happy at school.
Tracy also appreciated the way Pam connected with her as a parent. Pam was interested in everything that affected Jada’s life, including her mother’s health. That’s how Pam learned Tracy had lupus and was going through a rough spell.
“Anytime something is going on at home, I want the parents to tell me,” Pam says. “That way, I can give the kids that extra love or make sure the child is OK … that they’re not struggling.”
Jada graduated from kindergarten, but Pam and Tracy continued to stay in touch.
In 2018, Tracy told friends and family that she would need a new kidney. She also put the word out that in a few months, her doctors would be able to start testing possible donors.
It often takes years for people to get a kidney when they’re on a transplant center’s waiting list. The fastest way for Tracy to get one was to find someone she knew who was willing to donate a kidney.
Pam spoke up right away.
“When she told me that she was possibly going to have to have a kidney in the near future, I said ‘You let me know. And I’ll be the first one in line to be tested,’” Pam says.
But, Tracy says, lots of people told her they were willing to get tested -- 30 or more, she says. But not many followed up. In the end, Pam was one of only three people who actually went through an evaluation.
Finding the Right Donor
A living organ donation requires more than a willing donor. Doctors do extensive testing to be sure the donor is healthy enough and the organ will work for the person who needs it. A good match depends on age, blood type, body size, and other things.
After filling out some paperwork, Pam traveled from her home in Wallburg, NC, to the VA Transplant Center in Pittsburgh (Tracy previously served in the U.S. Army) for a full day of testing. Doctors gave her a physical, took a full medical history, drew blood, and did a CT scan and other tests.
Once she found out she was a match, she didn’t think twice. She went straight to the hospital to tell Tracy, filming the moment when her friend learned she would be getting a new kidney.
Pam says she has no doubts about her decision. “It’s been laid on my heart that I have to do this for her. To extend her life. She won’t have to go to dialysis three times a week. She’ll be there to take care of Jada. She can travel with her husband.”
There was one small obstacle before the surgery could go forward: Pam smoked cigarettes. And the donor rules are very clear: “I could not donate a kidney if I was a smoker.”
But she saw this as a kind of silver lining. She’s always wanted to give up cigarettes, and now she had the perfect motivation.
“I smoked for 19 years. And now, because of Tracy, I have stopped cold turkey. It feels like I have conquered the world,” she says.
The transplant surgery is scheduled for January 2020.
“I told Tracy to go ahead and start packing because we’re going to Pittsburgh.”
NOTE: Many people qualify to donate a kidney. If you know the person in need, the first step is to talk with them and with the team at the transplant center where they are listed. If you simply wish to donate to any person in need, contact a center near you. After that, you may need to travel to the transplant center for a full evaluation.