An altruistic donation: Woodstock woman donates kidney to stranger

Elizabeth Chance, 63, department chair of special education at Central High School, has been on the kidney transplant list for two years. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Bethany Mercer recently donated one of her kidneys to a stranger.

She said she and Sean Gibbons, 37, of Sterling, shared a mutual friend on Facebook.  When she read a post that Gibbons needed a kidney, Mercer, 38, of Woodstock, went in for testing to see if she was a viable donor.  She was, and she gave Gibbons one of her two kidneys on Aug. 24.

Mercer said she is telling her story because she wants to encourage others to do the  same.

“I want to bring people’s focus and awareness to the fact that it’s needed,” she said.

Kidneys are one of the few organs that can be donated while the donor is still living. A living donor can also donate parts of the liver, lung, pancreas and intestine.

She said a benefit of living organ donations is that organs from living donors tend to last longer than organs donated after someone has passed away.

Bethany Mercer, 38, of Woodstock, gave up one of her kidneys to a man she had never met before after reading on Facebook about his need for one. Rich Cooley/Daily

In order to be a compatible donor, the donor must be at least 18, have healthy organs and be in good physical and mental health. She added that the donor and recipient need to be the same blood type for a match.

She said the testing she endured “was the most thorough, free physical I will ever have in my life.”

Testing also included blood work, a CT scan, chest X-ray and EKG to determine if Mercer was healthy enough to donate. She said she also had to speak with a psychiatrist and a social worker because she was an altruistic donor, which is someone who donates to a stranger.

She said the reason for the visit was to guarantee she wasn’t being pressured into donating.

Following the testing, she said she had the three-hour operation at Inova Fairfax. She had the operation on a Wednesday afternoon and was discharged on Friday.

Limitations after the surgery included no heavy lifting and avoiding activities involving pulling, such as walking the dog, but she added that doctors encouraged her to get up to walk and stay active because the more activity she was able to do the faster she would recover.

She added that for the next two years, she will have routine blood work performed to ensure her remaining kidney is functioning properly.

When she decided to donate her kidney, she said family and friends were supportive of her decision but also worried for her.

“They were definitely not on board until it actually happened,” she said.

She added that like with any other surgery, there are always risks of infection, the need for a kidney in the future and death.

She added that a perk to donating was that if she ever needed a kidney, she would be sent to the top of the donation list because she was a previous organ donor.

She said her doctors kept her at ease and were good at communicating the process and answered any questions she had.

Mercer said she has encouraged her friends to consider donating, but in response  they say that while they don’t feel comfortable donating to a stranger, they may consider it for a friend or family member in need.

Mercer has kept in touch with Gibbons and they share their recovery experiences with each other.

Gibbons said that he spent a year on dialysis before finding Mercer. He had suffered from health problems most of his life, including a rare genetic disease, Fabry disease, that ultimately left his kidney nonfunctional.

Since his surgery, he said he is still limited in what he can do, but he added that the first three months are critical to recovery.

He said that Mercer’s altruisism was amazing and those who donate never know the kind of effect it will have on someone because the person receiving the organ can live a healthier and happier life.

“I still can’t really believe that it happened and I really feel like I owe it to her to take better care of myself because she did such a huge favor for me, and I’m going to take care of that kidney the best I can,” he said.

Mercer is also in touch with a woman from Woodstock, Elizabeth Chance, 63, who is in need of a kidney.

Chance, who is a department chair of special education at Central High School, said she has been on the transplant list for about two years waiting for a suitable kidney donor after discovering the kidney disease she has had for 25 years turned into kidney failure.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S.. The site notes that 1 in 3 American adults are at risk for developing kidney disease and 26 million adults have the disease, and many don’t even know it.

Chance said five people have come forward to offer a kidney, but none have gone through with the donation. During the testing process, one potential donor discovered that she was having kidney trouble herself and so she couldn’t donate.

Chance added that for anyone considering donating, “I would be so very grateful but I do want them to understand the ramifications of donating their kidney.”

“It’s asking a lot of a person to donate a kidney,” she said.

Chance said she has Type O blood. People with Type O blood are universal donors, but they can only receive Type O blood from a donor.

She uses a dialysis machine for about nine hours each night and continues to work full time at Central High School. She added that it’s not unusual for her to come home and take a nap after work due to exhaustion.

She remains optimistic and continues to spend time with her children and grandchildren.

“I think what has gotten me through is I look for the joy in life,” she said. “There’s so much joy. There’s so much for us to be grateful for. I try not to dwell on the negative and that’s gotten me through a lot.”

She is also advising everyone to sign his or her donor card to register as an organ donor. When applying for a driver’s license, she said to select ‘yes’ to organ donation to register with the state’s organ donor registry.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com

Kidney Donations

• There are 123,000 people in the United States who need some kind of an organ transplant.  Of that number, 101,000 people are waiting for a kidney.

• 17,000 people receive a kidney each year.

• 12 people waiting for a kidney transplant die each day.

• The median wait time for a first kidney tranplant is 3.6 years.

Source: National Kidney Foundation, www.kidney.org