Diana Mcintyre was tired. Back-and-forth trips between clinical visits and at-home recovery became both monotonous and demoralizing. Her hopes for a kidney transplant to break the cycle were dashed by an 8-12 year waitlist. Fortunately, her husband, Howard, stepped forward as a living donor to bypass the waitlist.
As success rates for kidney transplants have increased over time, so has demand for kidney donations, says Charles Bratton, MD, surgical director of kidney transplant at Loma Linda University Health (LLU).Today over 90,000 people are on the waitlist for a kidney donation, with the average wait time in California being around 10 years, depending on factors such as blood type, age, and other conditions.
Waiting a decade was not feasible for Diana, who was over 65 years old at the time of her kidney failure diagnosis. With several pre-existing conditions and being in her 70s by the time a kidney might become available, her chances of remaining a candidate looked grim. Determined to expedite the process, Howard began looking into the possibility of becoming her kidney donor. He felt it was imperative that Diana obtain a new kidney, and by extension, a renewed sense of vitality.
Life changed in 2016 when Diana visited an emergency room because of her swelling legs and feet, only to discover that her kidney was no longer able to perform its natural functions. For three years, Diana traveled to a clinic for dialysis — a process designed to remove excess fluids like water, solutes, and toxins from the blood.
It was exhausting, she said, to wake up at four in the morning to travel to the clinic every other day for three hours of drainage. She spent days off mustering the energy to repeat the entire process the following day. “My body was tired,” Diana said. “I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t have a life.” Howard echoed her sentiments about the draining ordeal. “It really changed her and took away her personality, which seriously bothered me.”
After all, Howard has known Diana since they were 25 years old. They grew up within six blocks of each other in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but met in San Bernardino, California, through mutual friends where Howard was stationed at Norton Airforce Base. Despite the instant connection, they did not meet again for 20 years.
Diana launched her career as a nurse and Howard moved to San Diego where he experienced a second divorce. Needless to say, Howard hadn’t forgotten Diana and moved back to San Bernardino to rekindle their spark. “The rest is history,” Howard said.
Because Diana gave Howard a new life when marrying him, he said it was only natural to return the favor. “She already has my heart, so what difference is my kidney going to make?” he said.
In order to be eligible for kidney donation, Howard had to lose 14 pounds and bring his high blood pressure under control. Howard began a new diet and took blood pressure medication.
He completed all the prerequisites and necessary physical testing by February 2020, but the couple faced an unexpected delay as COVID-19 swept across California, temporarily suspending the prospect of a transplant.
To the couple’s great joy, LLU notified the Mcintyres of an opportunity for transplant in November 2020, a week after Diana’s 69th birthday. Surgeons completed the entire kidney transplant process in a day.
Bratton operated on Howard in the morning to remove his kidney, after which Michael de Vera, MD, FACS, director of the LLU Transplant Institute, safely completed the transfer of the kidney to Diana by late afternoon. They were one of the oldest donor-recipient kidney transplant pairs the Transplant Institute has cared for.
Diana said the surgery felt so seamless that when she awoke post-operation, she thought the doctors were just getting ready to begin. To her delight, the transplant was already completed and she had a healthy, functioning kidney.
De Vera said the advantage of transplanting living donors’ organs as opposed to deceased donors’ into recipients lies in the significant reduction of cold ischemia time — the time between the preservation of an organ after its blood supply has been cut off and the time it is warmed by having its blood supply restored. Organs such as kidneys from living donors generally tend to function better and last longer for recipients, he said.
“This is a blessing and another lifeline for me,” Diana said. “My husband who donated his kidney to me, the transplant procedure, and the care team who helped me through it — they all saved my life. I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for taking care of my husband and me.”
The Mcintyres have healed without complications. Diana said she has gotten back to making music and singing at church, as well as cherishing her time spent with Howard. Howard said he is overjoyed to see Diana return to her vibrant self and enjoys their quality time together.
“Stories like the Mcintyre’s allow everyone to take a deep breath and be marveled at the genuine kindness of the human heart and the indomitability of the human spirit,” said Bratton.
De Vera said he hopes the Mcintyre’s experience will inspire others to become living donors for those in desperate need of organs. “The reality remains that people die everyday waiting for organs because of the massive supply and demand gap between donors and recipients,” he says. “But those with healthy organs, even if they are 69, can make a world of difference and literally save lives by becoming living donors.”
About the Living Kidney Donor Program
Although many kidney transplants come from people who have passed away, patients in need can receive a kidney from a loved one or altruistic stranger through the living donor program. A series of tests are conducted to make sure the donor and recipient are a match. While kidneys are the most common organs donated by living donors, living individuals can also donate portions of a lung, pancreas, liver, or intestines. If you or someone you know wants to learn more about the program, the Loma Linda University Transplant Institute’s website has more information about the process of being a living kidney donor.