It’s difficult to say that most American’s aren’t aware of organ donations. By 2020 National campaigns have been encouraging organ donations on television, in newspapers, across the internet and on social media for years. Most have seen bumper stickers or billboards, asking people to become donors. In fact, if you have a driver's license renewed in the last decade then you have been asked by people at the Department of Motor Vehicles if you want to become a donor.
With all the available information and awareness of organ donations, why are there more than 120,000 Americans currently waiting for life saving donations? Why are so many of our neighbors, friends and family remaining on rosters and dialysis?
The simple answer is that there are not enough deceased donor kidneys to stave off the growing number of people in need.
Enter Kristi Barkley.
Barkley is just like most women in Dickinson. She is happily married, a mother of two, a hard working business woman and a adamant believer in Christian principals of giving to others in need. While this sounds like she could be Mrs. Everywoman, Barkley is unique in that she made the conscious decision to give what many call the greatest gift — one of her kidneys to a complete stranger.
On Sunday, July 26, after a long nine-month process filled with tests and evaluations amidst a global pandemic, Barkley traveled with her husband to Sioux Falls, S.D. to have her left kidney surgically removed before being transferred to Ohio and given to a complete stranger in dire need of the organ.
“I am considered a non-directed donor, I’m not paired with anybody … I’m anonymous and I don’t know who gets it,” Barkley said. “There's no skin in the game for me. It's not that I’m helping a family member or friend, I am just helping a human.
“It is very amazing how we’re designed. And we only need one (kidney) and (God) gave us two,” Barkley added. “I think there was a reason for that. I think there is an ultimate design like that.”
In early October, Barkley was at home watching American Ninja Warrior when she saw a man telling the story of how he donated his kidney to his best friend. The man now participates in the course while wearing a shirt with the caption ‘share your spare,’ with images of people in need of kidneys. From that moment, Barkley experienced a paradigm shift in the way she viewed herself and her extra organ.
“I really felt led to be like ‘this is something that you can do, It’s not going to hurt you,’” Barkley said. “It doesn't really hurt your risks … I think my risk of dying in surgery is one in 10,000. And my risk of having renal disease later in life only goes up by 3% of the average person, so there’s really no risks for me, and it could save a life.”
According to Transplants.org, 95% of people on waiting lists are in need of a kidney or liver and more than 468,000 Americans are currently in dialysis.
Every 10 minutes, another name is added to the list and another 20 will die each day awaiting some hope that a donor is out in the ether and a match. While the majority of the people donating organs do so after death, statistics show that over 7,000 living Americans donated an organ in 2019.
Barkley opted to keep the decision only to her husband and kids for a long time. It was not until the end of last week when Barkley decided to announce to Facebook her decision. While some were supportive of her decision from the start, such as her husband and children, others needed more convincing.
“I’ve had some friends that are super supportive and some that are like, ‘why would you want to do that?’ And I always say, ‘well, why not? Why not me?’” Barkley said. “It’s been a mixed bag of reviews. My parents do support me because they love me, but they are terrified about me doing something I shouldn’t do … they asked ‘are you still doing that thing, next week?’ They won’t even say what it is.”
Numerous studies confirm that while a deceased transplant is highly beneficial, an organ from a living donor is far and away more beneficial to the organ recipient. The benefits coming from a living donor include cutting down the amount of time needed for the organ to function in the recipient’s body. Living donor organs typically begin to function within minutes following surgery, compared to deceased organs which may need some time to begin functioning. Termed “sleepy kidneys”, deceased organs present unique challenges not typically found in living donations.
According to the University of Minnesota, the risk of those that need to go to dialysis after the transplant to less than four percent in living donations.
Barkley said that doctors estimated the probability of the receiving patient surviving for at least one year after their transplant is at 98.53%, while life expectancy of patients in need can be extended by 16-20 years from most healthy living donations.
Barkley was informed by the doctors that her donation started a chain in which a minimum of 10 other lives could be saved, based on her own contribution — often when others hear of her story and make their own decisions to follow suit.
Donating organs is by and large something people do to help others, but for the Barkley’s family the decision does come with a few added perks.
“I learned that as a non-directed kidney donor, with my one kidney left, if I happened to have renal disease or renal failure in the future, I go to the top of the list to get a new kidney,” she said. “And I can write down five family members, that if they were to need a kidney transplant, like my father, they would move higher up on the priority because I gave something that I didn’t have to at that time.”
For Barkley, the process was far from easy and took months to prepare. After taking the first application and questionnaire in early October, Barkley opted to go to do the operation Sioux Falls, the closest location to Dickinson. From there, Barkley had telephone conversations with social workers,verifying she was mentally stable and able to partake in the operation.
After finishing a series of urine tests, to make sure her blood and sugar levels were healthy, and a few blood tests at Sanford West, Barkley and her daughter drove to Rapid City, S.D. in February which Barkley met her team, minus the doctor, and also provided 23 vials of blood for testing.
“Throughout this whole process, I just kept praying … if a door was going to shut, then I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Barkley said. “But it’s just been so smooth and so peaceful, that I never doubted it or questioned it.”
After months of tests and applications and questions, Barkley was finally approved for the procedure to take place in May — then the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Like the rest of the rest of the world, Barkley’s operation was shut down.
“It was very disappointing, because in my mind people are dying. Or, even if they’re not dying, they’re not living a full life,” Barkley said. “Then in June, they called me and said ‘we’re back on if you’re willing,’ and I said, ‘absolutely.’”
After nine-months filled with literal blood, sweat and tears, Barkley departed for South Dakota with two kidneys and will return with one.
“This is nothing compared to the people that have to go through dialysis,” she said. “The biggest take away from all of this would be … the significance that one person can make a huge difference for someone else. Even if it’s just you and that recipient, you can still make a world of difference.”