Organ Donation is the Gift of Life

Imagine having chronic kidney disease requiring dialysis — a long, painful process several times a week that restores kidneys only to partial functionality. Then imagine you’re a mother of an autistic child who requires your constant care, and the wait-time for a transplant has grown available organs have become even scarcer.

Such was the case with Mary Stokes, 44. But thankfully, due to the courage and friendship of one woman, Stokes’ story has a happy ending.

When Heather Cordasco, 54, first decided to be an organ donor, she had no idea how chronic kidney disease affects the U.S. population. As it turns out, a little over half a million Americans experience kidney failure every year. Kidney disease kills more people than breast or prostate cancer and is especially prevalent among African-American communities—about 3.7 times more than whites.

Cordasco, a fitness instructor, and Stokes, a special education teacher, had been friends for about eight years, working together on issues in the school system. “I had known she was sick for awhile,” Cordasco told Opportunity Lives. “But I didn’t know the exact nature of her illness.”  

The exact nature of Stokes’ illness is what makes this story remarkable.

Stokes wasn’t concerned until her lab results continued “looking stranger.”

Stokes has lived with nephritis, an inflammation of the kidney, for as long as she can remember. All her life she’s had abnormal lab results, and about 16 years ago, discovered she also had high blood pressure. Stokes wasn’t concerned until her lab results continued “looking stranger.”

In 2008, additional tests found that Stokes’ kidneys were deteriorating and medication seemed less and less effective. In August 2016, she went on the transplant list. The next month, she went from stage four to stage five, and had to start dialysis in November. Her prognosis seemed grim. Despite the long, uncomfortable process of removing waste, her kidney still functioned poorly.

Over time, Stokes quietly revealed to Cordasco she had been placed on the kidney transplant list

“It was at that time I asked to be tested to see if I was a match”

“It was at that time I asked to be tested to see if I was a match,” Cordasco said. At first Stokes felt uncomfortable with that, but Cordasco persisted. “You’re not asking me to be tested. I’m asking to be tested.” Stokes was overwhelmed with Cordasco’s generosity. “She was just so sincere genuine.”

Although organs are not matched based on race or ethnicity and often people of different races do match each other, minorities tend to have a better chance of finding a matching organ if there’s a larger pool or organ donors from their particular racial or ethnic background. Cordasco is Northern Eastern and Southern European with just a bit of Ashkenazi Jewish blood and Stokes is mainly Western and Eastern European.

“I told her that I had always wanted to be a donor and that if I wasn’t a match I wasn’t a match,” Cordasco recalled.

Still, in December, Cordasco and Stokes found out their kidneys were a match.

“I was shocked at first” when she found out that Cordasco’s kidney matched hers, Stokes said.  “I felt like this can’t be real. This is the best gift you could ever get.”

“I felt like this can’t be real. This is the best gift you could ever get.”

Since the likelihood of transplant success is higher with a living donor than with a cadaver, to Cordasco this seemed like a win-win situation:  “The donor can live a normal life and be recipient and can live a normal life,” she said. “The quality of life impact will be great.”

On February 28, Heather and Mary, once friends-now soon-to-be bound for life through the sharing of a kidney, entered surgery apprehensive though mostly optimistic. Cordasco wasn’t a fan of anesthesia, though, as a fitness instructor, she’s quite healthy. Stokes had just completed a recent surgery but looked forward to receiving the kidney she desperately needs. They completed surgery successfully and are now recovering.

The two women hope their story overcoming tremendous odds will encourage others to consider being an organ donor. “You can’t talk someone out of being afraid of needles or surgeries but a living donor has such a high impact. There’s less than 2 percent failure rate for a living donor. There’s going to be at least one person who is going to be willing to do that,” Cordasco said.

Nicole Russell is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @nmrussell2.