I’d always signed the donor section on the back of my driver’s license,” said James H. Haemmerle, MD, of Savage, Minn.,“but a few years ago I started to think a little more seriously about it.”
Dr. Hammerle stops to admire one of the thousands of roses with personal dedications of love and remembrance that decorated the unique Dedication Garden encircling the float.
As he researched the issue, Dr. Haemmerle, who describes himself as “sort of relentlessly analytical,” found that kidneys donated by living donors tend to be successful twice as often as kidneys donated from cadavers, and the kidneys that do succeed last about twice as long.
“I think my wife was a little concerned about the donation process,” he said. “Obviously, it’s major surgery, but it’s laparoscopically assisted, it’s a small incision, a short hospital stay, and the risks are extremely low. Mayo Clinic for example, has never had a living donor die from the procedure.”
A smooth process
Dr. Haemmerle contacted the Mayo Clinic Transplant Center in Rochester, Minn., and began the process of registering as a living donor.
“They do a very thorough evaluation—both psychological and physiologic—before you’re accepted as a donor,” he said. “My understanding is that a significant number of potential donors are not accepted for one reason or another. So obviously the medical teams are very careful and thorough about accepting donors.”
In February 2010, just a few months after being accepted, Dr. Haemmerle underwent surgery to donate his kidney. The process, as he describes it, went smoothly.
“I was in the hospital 2 nights, so 3 days counting the day of surgery,” he says. “I was back working part-time at 3 weeks and doing everything at 6 weeks.
After a mandated waiting period, Dr. Haemmerle was able to make contact with his recipient—a middle-aged man living in the Midwest.
“The center serves as a connection at first,” said Dr. Haemmerle. “He sent me a card and I sent one in return. A few months later I was traveling through the area where he lives and I got to spend a few hours with him and some of his family. It was a very moving experience.
“Part of the reason people become physicians is to help people, and in a sense maybe this is another way of doing that,” he continued. “It’s not that spectacular. I mean…I didn’t run into a burning building; I didn’t pull somebody out of a car on a highway or something. It’s not common, but it isn’t the kind of heroics that people do all the time for other people.”
Rose Parade float
The kidney recipient could be forgiven if he chooses to disagree with Dr. Haemmerle’s unassuming description of his generous act, but thanks to the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Haemmerle received public recognition in a form he never expected when he began the process. On Jan. 2, 2012, Dr. Haemmerle was one of 28 people riding on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
“Sitting on a parade float and waving to strangers isn’t necessarily my thing,” he laughed, “but I think there’s value to promoting the idea of living organ donations.”
The float responded to the Rose Parade’s theme “Just imagine…” with the idea of living “One More Day.” In addition to the 28 living donors riding the float, 72 floral portraits of deceased donors adorned six floral timepieces. Anchoring the float was a 33-foot clock tower with an animated sun/moon dial. For its dramatic impact, the float was honored with the “Judges’ Special Trophy.”
More than a one-time gift
“It’s not uncommon for people to donate kidneys to family members,” said Dr. Haemmerle. “This is just an extension of that same principle. The risks are very minimal and the rewards are pretty substantial. In sort of an odd way, I think maybe I’ve gotten more out of this than the kidney recipient. It’s made me aware of how uncertain things are sometimes—how precious life is. Maybe that’s natural as you get older, but it really hit home when I heard some of his stories and got to meet his family.”
Dr. Haemmerle is still a registered organ donor with the state, and hopes to live another 20 years and that his remaining kidney will outlive him.
“On balance, being a donor has been a more positive experience than I ever would have envisioned. And the recovery was easier than I thought it would be. I had an ankle procedure that was far more uncomfortable and took far longer to recover from than this did,” he recalls. “I have no lingering side effects whatsoever—no long-term effects of any kind. I consider myself very active for my age, and I haven’t had to limit my activities. If it’s the right time and the right situation, becoming a living donor is something I would ask people to seriously consider.”
For more information on becoming a living donor, visit www.donatelife.net
Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at email@example.com
Did you know…
- 100 million Americans—roughly 42 percent of the adult population—are registered as organ, eye, and tissue donors in state donor registries.
- More than 112,000 people are currently waiting for lifesaving organ transplants.
- Donate Life America, the national organization promoting organ, eye, and tissue donation in the United States, hopes to register 20 million new donors in 2012.
- The Donate Life America float in the Rose Parade featured 28 riders who have all given or received organ transplants.
- It was the winner of the Judges’ Special Trophy for outstanding showmanship and dramatic impact.