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5 Questions with Melissa Magee

January 26, 2017

Placer County employees are known for their giving. We donate on the Big Day of Giving. We’re known for donations to charities. We do things like donate our lunch hours volunteering at the animal services center. But Melissa Magee, an administrative technician in the County Executive Office, took her charity to a whole other level.

1. You recently gave a complete stranger a tremendous gift. What did you do? And how did it come about?

On Dec. 13, 2016, I donated a kidney. In August of 2016 I saw an article on social media about a 22-year-old Grass Valley man who was in full renal failure, and none of his close friends or family were a match for him. His family was desperate for a donor to step forward. I saw that we were both O negative blood types and decided to see if I was a match. I contacted his grandma via the GoFundMe they’d started and she referred me to the U.C. Davis Transplant Center. As a mother, I sympathized with what his mom must have been going through – seeing her son suffer and being unable to help him. I thought, ‘This is what we do as a community – we take care of each other.’  

2. What did you have to do to donate a kidney?

I went through a screening process at the U.C. Davis Transplant Center. It was exhaustive. First I had blood tests and a blood panel done, then the screening looked at my physical health, family history, my lifestyle, diet and if I had anything that suggests I was likely to develop kidney disease or cancer. They looked at whether I smoked or used alcohol, and my weight. Then I met with a social worker at the center, which has a support system for donors, and was interviewed by a psychiatrist. I met with a dietician and had a full physical exam, including a CT scan, EKG, chest x-rays and an MRI.

In November, I was notified that I’d received final approval as a donor, and the surgery was scheduled. On Dec. 13, I went in for the three-hour surgery. They removed my left kidney and transferred it to the recipient’s surgical team in an adjacent operating room where the other half of the transplant occurred. Donated kidneys can go into shock and may take up to three days to start working, but my kidney was working within an hour of being transplanted. Since the surgery, his levels have been good, and he hasn’t needed dialysis since the transplant. That’s great considering he had been in full renal failure since August, and his kidneys had been declining in function most of his life. Knowing that there’s always a chance the kidney could fail, or never work to begin with, so far I feel very good and hopeful about how things have turned out.

3. Are there any long-term effects or challenges you’ll face?

Part of the reason for the extensive lifestyle and health screening they do at the beginning of the process is to weed out donors who are at a higher risk of developing kidney disease or issues.  Since I passed that screening, I’m free to continue my life with business as usual. They told me to refrain from high-impact sports, so no mixed martial arts. I can live with that. But other than that, there really aren’t any limitations.

I had a six-week medical leave, that included a 20-pound lifting limitation and I can’t sit for too long or it starts hurting, but that will go away. The only medication I was given was for pain, which I’ve stopped needing. There’s a misconception that if you donate a kidney you’re in worse shape because you don’t have your ‘spare’ kidney waiting to save the day if something goes wrong. In reality, nearly anything that happens to one kidney (kidney disease, cancer, etc.) happens to both kidneys at once; there’s no such thing as a back-up kidney. They always work (or fail to work) as a team. Should something happen to my kidney, it’ll just happen faster. But, because I’ve donated a kidney, I would be at the top of the list to receive a kidney, if I ever need one.

4. How have your family, friends and co-workers been?

My kids [two daughters, 16 and 10 years old] are proud of me. They were scared on the day of the surgery, but they’ve been great and very helpful. My friends are proud of me. They’ve said things like, “Wow, that’s not something I could have done,” which is really a shame, because there are so many people in need.

My co-workers have been great. Today [Jan. 23] is my first day back and they threw a kidney-themed, welcome back party. They made me a kidney-shaped cake, kidney bean chili, kidney bean salad and kidney-shaped cookies. It was super cute and made my first day back a great one. My co-workers and supervisors have been encouraging through the whole process, and offered all kinds of support for my recovery. I really feel like I’m part of a family here.

5. What else do you want to tell us about your experience?

I’m what is called an anonymous donor; I didn’t meet the recipient until after the transplant, and even then it was my choice whether I wanted to meet the recipient at all. While I was in the hospital recovering, I was shuffling around my ward, dragging my drip line with me. I’d seen photos of the recipient and as I passed a room I saw him. So I poked my head in and jokingly asked, “How’s my kidney working?” His family came pouring out of the room to greet me. His girlfriend hugged me. His mother hugged me. His grandmother hugged me and asked me to call her ‘grandma.’ They were crying. They gave me Christmas presents. They’ve offered to help me with anything I might need. They’ve totally adopted me.

When I returned to U.C. Davis for a follow up visit, they gave me a glass starfish and told me the parable it represented. A young boy came to the beach and saw thousands of starfish had washed ashore. He started throwing them back. An old man came upon him and told him he was wasting his time and that, since there were so many, he couldn't possibly make a difference. The boy picked up another starfish and threw it back into the ocean and said to the old man, “It made a difference to that one.”

Before I went through with this, my family thought I was crazy, asking me, “What are you doing?” For me, it’s six weeks of discomfort and a little bit of risk, in exchange for the knowledge that I’ve vastly improved someone else’s life. Kind of a no-brainer, for me. 

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