HOUSTON—Theresa Booth’s long journey to receive a life-saving kidney transplant included her mom’s public campaign to find a donor. It also led her on a seven-year odyssey through dialysis clinics, two different hospitals, and questions about competition and how the system is supposed to work.
Booth’s kidneys were removed seven years ago. She had polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that plagues up to 600,000 people in the U.S. and is the fourth-leading cause of kidney failure, according to the National Kidney Foundation. It also ruled out donation from a sibling or other family member, since they also carried the genetic trait.
When we first met her in December of 2008, she was a dialysis patient hooked up to machines three times a week, four hours each visit.
"Without dialysis I would die," she said.
We met the 54-year-old mom and grandmother because her mom drove around Spring in northwest Harris County with a sign on the side of her mini-van. The sign said: "My daughter needs a kidney to save her life." The sign included her blood type and a phone number to call.
"You never quit being a mom or a dad," Maxine Katowski said. "Once you’re a mom or a dad it doesn’t matter how old your children get you’re still a mom or a dad. And you’re always trying to fix your kid’s problems if you can."
After our first story, 35 people responded from across the U.S. and Canada saying they wanted to be tested to see if they could be a donor match for Theresa. She was a patient at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston at the time. A St. Luke’s spokesperson said they could not comment on the case, so neither 11 News nor Theresa knows if those volunteers were ever tested.
"I was with them for four years," she said. "I’m sure there was a match in four years, somewhere."
But in the United States, four years is about the average wait for a kidney transplant.
According to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, the average is 44.4 months. At the end of 2009, there were 83,053 people on the waiting list for a kidney transplant in the U.S. In that same year, 4,403 people died waiting for a transplant.
After her four years at St. Luke’s, Theresa decided to move to the transplant program at Methodist Hospital. She spent another 8 months on the transplant list there.
The call she was waiting for came two weeks ago.
"And he said Miss Booth, this is the coordinator with Methodist and we have your kidney today. And I was like....for real???!"
It was for real. The kidney was for her. And the transplant, so far, has been a success.
"New life," she said. "It’s going to be a whole new ballgame."
But the long wait left her with questions: Four years at one hospital and no transplant, but she switched to another hospital and the donor came in just eight months.
"It’s just like waiting in line so to speak," explained her nephrologist, Dr. Juan Gonzalez, who works at both St. Luke’s and Methodist. "It doesn’t matter where you’re waiting, you’re waiting in line."
Gonzalez explained that Methodist, St. Luke’s and Memorial Hermann all perform kidney transplants in Houston. Transplants from siblings, other family members and other live donors are performed every week. Methodist performed 141 kidney transplants last year and as of April 30, 44 kidney transplants have already been performed this year.
But when it comes to the donor registry maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) and administered in Houston by LifeGift, hospitals do not compete.
All of the patients at each hospital are on the same national list. Their chance at a life-saving gift depends on a number of factors, including who is the best match, who is the most critical and the length of time someone has been on the donor registry.
In Theresa’s case, her combined time at the two hospitals was included in the decision that led to her kidney donation from a deceased donor.
"There are times where patients have to wait a long time," said Dr. Gonzalez. "The disadvantage is that this is one of those situations where you cannot be guaranteeing anybody about time."
Theresa’s gift came from a 33-year-old man. That’s all she knows … and that his family made an emotional but generous choice when he died.
Theresa began to cry when we asked about him.
"Because it still pains me to think that he lost his life. And I gained one," she said.
When asked what she would like to say to the man’s family, Theresa responded with thanks.
"Thank you for giving me a second chance in life. So that I can know what God wants me to do with it," she said.
As for Theresa’s mom, she doesn’t need that sign on the side of her van anymore. She’s removed it but said she plans to make a new one with a whole new message: "My daughter has a new life because someone donated a kidney."
‘It’s just a new life. She has the chance to have a new life," said Katowski.