Sixteen years ago, in September of 2002, Donna Wheaton received the gift of a lifetime, a kidney donated to her by a friend she had met through her job as a fitness instructor at the Cranston YMCA. Martha McNally had been a regular participant in Wheaton’s classes and when she heard of Wheaton’s need for a kidney, she was one of several who stepped up to be tested.
Initially, she was turned away because there were too many donors, but eventually it was determined that McNally could be the donor, and the transplant took place, bonding the two together forever.
At the time, Wheaton had a 2-year-old and a 12-year-old, and the gift of the kidney donation gave her a renewed appreciation for each day she had to spend with her daughters and her husband as well as her family and friends.
The normal “life” of a donated kidney is seven to ten years.
Now, Wheaton, 55 years old, is in need of a new kidney again, as her current kidney is failing. McNally is encouraging potential donors to consider this life-saving gift, noting that in the past 16 years she has had no repercussions or issues as a result of donating her kidney.
Wheaton is also hoping that potential donors will come forward and help to save her life, to give her the gift of more time with her husband, Robert, to whom she has been married for 31 years and her daughters, Ashley and Madison, now grown adults.
“At the time of my first transplant, my oldest really had to step up and step into more of a mothering mode while I was recovering,” Wheaton recalled.
She and her family spend a great deal of time advocating for recipients and for donors, to raise awareness of the need for organ donation and awareness of the quality of life for those undergoing treatment.
Wheaton, who has type O blood, can accept a kidney from those with both O-positive and O-negative blood types. She initially noticed a change in her physical well-being approximately six months ago and recognized the familiar symptoms from years ago.
“I was getting a metallic taste in my mouth, I was feeling very lethargic, nauseous, and experiencing weight gain,” she said. “I was overall just feeling sick. I went to the doctor, but they initially did not believe me. I was at a level of 24, and 20 is end-stage renal failure, 15 means you need to go on dialysis and you need a donor. About two and a half months ago I went to the doctor again and they did a biopsy, and sure enough, I was in acute renal failure. I started treatments three times a week to try to reverse the rejection of the kidney, but they weren’t able to stop it.”
Wheaton is trying to be as proactive as possible this time around, knowing what a long process it is to find a donor who is a match and hopes that her advocacy surrounding organ donation will help.
“If I knew then, what I know now, I would have been much more proactive that time around. I waited too long. There are so many potential donors out there,” she said. “If they knew, they could save so many people’s lives and improve their quality of life. People in need of kidney donations are on dialysis, they are dying, and people with healthy kidneys can live with just one kidney.”
Wheaton remembers the side effects that she experienced while on dialysis last time around and hopes not to have that experience again.
“I was one of those for whom dialysis was not a good fit,” she said. “I experienced a lot of side effects. I had restless leg syndrome, I was very, very nauseous, I would be incapacitated all day long afterwards. Dialysis lasts for four hours a day, three to four days a week.”
Wheaton is very grateful to her doctor, Dr. Bayliss at Rhode Island Hospital for his advocacy on her behalf, and to her transplant team, as they’ve worked together during this process.
“From when you go on the list, to the time you get a kidney, could be between three and five years,” she said. “It is not a quick process. You need to find a potential donor, go through the workups and see if they’re a match. It can take years, and time is of the essence. Once we find a match, the surgery has to be scheduled. In the meantime, I’ve been receiving blood transfusions and plasmapheresis, chemo and IG drip treatments.” Those with O-positive or O-negative blood who wish to be tested as a possible donor for Donna Wheaton should contact her donor coordinator, Sarah Gibbs at RI Hospital 444-3091.