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Sue’s Views: Families and patients benefit from organ donors

MORRIS -- April is National Organ Donor Awareness Month. I’m guessing that for most of us, the only time we think about being an organ donor is every four years when we’re renewing our driver’s license.

I think about it a little more frequently. You see, my oldest brother, Tony, needed an organ transplant and another brother, Tim, donated his kidney.

Tony had a congenital kidney defect and had experimental surgery at the University of Minnesota hospital when he was in his teens. There was no way to tell how many years the surgery would add to his life, but it was certain that without it, Tony would not have had much for quality of life.

As it turned out, the surgery gave Tony over 40 years of mostly healthy living. But in December of 2003, his kidneys were only functioning at 15 percent. He was experiencing complications from kidney failure and it was time to consider a kidney transplant. Each of us siblings got a letter from him and his wife outlining what their situation was and asking if we’d consider being a living donor.

According to Donate Life, an organ donation awareness organization, about three-quarters of all live donors are relatives of their recipient, most commonly a brother or sister.

I cannot imagine how it felt to have to ask for that kind of help. And while I had always been careful to check that yes, I’m an organ donor, on my driver’s license, I had always thought that I’d be dead when the time came to do it. But there I was, looking at a handwritten request on a piece of paper in front of me, and the answer was not so easy to find.

Truth be told, Tony was not my favorite brother. I spent my entire life living in his shadow and he felt that as the youngest, I received more than my share of the family’s resources. There were other, specific grievances between the two of us, but it came down to some very basic sibling rivalries.

It would have been much easier, I think, to have a total stranger ask for my kidney than to face the question from Tony.

Fortunately, Tim, the middle child, knew from the moment he was asked what his answer would be. After much testing and preparation, Tim was in a hospital in Fargo in June for the transplant surgery.

The procedure went perfectly and Tony and Tim were closer than ever. The change in Tony’s life was nothing short of remarkable. Within days, he was back to being a vital person who could do almost anything he wanted.

However, not everyone has a brother like Tim. Right now, 112,000 Americans are in the spot that Tony was in -- waiting for an organ. Every day 18 people die waiting for an organ transplant here in the United States. Most of them are waiting for kidney or liver transplants.

For those who know our family, you know that Tony’s nearly lifelong struggle with kidney disease ended this past September, when he died at the age of 59. However, thanks to the miracle of modern medicine and the generous spirit of our brother, Tim, we had nine years to settle our differences. And we were able to get to know each other as adults, which is a gift I appreciate every day.

Very often, the story of organ donation focuses entirely on the recipient, which is perfectly appropriate. But each one of those folks has a family who also benefits from the life-saving act of being an organ donor, in more ways than anyone can possibly imagine.

Please take a moment to consider becoming an organ donor. Anyone, regardless of age or medical history, can sign up to be a donor. In addition to designating that you are an organ donor on your license, tell your family your wishes. You can also visit Donate Life Minnesota at to register as an organ donor.