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It wasn’t until I recently became a mother myself that I realized what an amazing gift my Aunt Beth gave by donating her kidney in honor of her son Daniel. As mothers, our instincts are to protect our own children. It takes a special kind of person who is willing to help protect someone else’s.
My cousin Daniel began having unexplainable health problems at 12. At 17, his kidneys were failing. When Beth found out she was not a donor match for Daniel, she was devastated. But in a stroke of luck, her brother, my uncle John, was a match, and six years later Daniel is still healthy after the transplant.
"Your instinct as a mom is to do whatever you can for your children. I had to rely on someone else to help Daniel. Therefore, I wanted somebody to be able to rely on me." – My Aunt Beth, on donating her kidney
While most people would want to move on from a painful experience, feelings of helplessness lingered. Spending countless hours in the pediatric wing of the hospital where Daniel (pictured above with his mother) was being treated, Beth witnessed the same children waiting for dialysis and growing physically sicker as time went on. The experience stayed with her when Daniel’s health returned: “Your instinct as a mom is to do whatever you can for your children,” she says. “I had to rely on someone else to help Daniel. Therefore, I wanted somebody to be able to rely on me.”
Three years ago, my aunt sat down at breakfast and read a story in the paper about Iyanna McDuffie, mother to a 2-year-old, and who’d been on dialysis since she was 13. She desperately needed a kidney transplant. So Beth immediately set out to see if she was a match by contacting the Newark, N.J. Beth Israel hospital where Iyanna, 24, was being treated. “I waited to make sure my son was OK,” Beth says. “Once I knew he was, I spoke with Iyanna. She told me about being too ill to play with her daughter.” Beth then contacted Garet Hil, founder of the National Kidney Registry, to find out if she was a match for Iyanna.
The NKR is the only organization of its kind in the U.S. It has a sophisticated computer system that collects blood samples into a database, re-sorts them and finds matches. Hil started the Registry after the long and painful process of helping his 10-year-old daughter find a match. Sadly, Beth and Iyanna were not compatible.
However, the hospital had an idea: Would my aunt be willing to pair with Iyanna and go into a pool of donors and recipients with the National Kidney Registry? The way it works is that Iyanna would receive a new kidney if Beth agreed to give one of hers to someone else who she was a match with. This is called a kidney chain, a relatively new concept. The way a chain works is when a good Samaritan donates to a stranger, the donor's kidney is given to a matched recipient. That recipient must then have a donor willing to give his or her kidney to another stranger. That stranger must have a donor also willing to give a kidney to a stranger, and so on. Hospitals are now involved in healthy competitions as to the length of the chains, the largest involving 60 people in California last December.
Beth underwent surgery to remove her kidney on March 12, 2009. Her recipient? Lavoria Cure, a nursing aide from New Jersey who had kidney failure brought on by diabetes, and had been on dialysis nightly since 1998. Cure’s son Khary Walker, not a match for Cure, entered into the same chain and donated a kidney.
Of her recovery, Beth says: “I was feeling great almost immediately and was essentially back to normal no more than 24 hours later with little discomfort. Actually, the after effects were only from the anesthesia! I regained full strength in about a week. I never wavered at all, even in the hospital when they were prepping me for surgery. I’d easily do it again and I hope others consider becoming donors!”
Nine weeks after surgery, the donors and recipients met at an event sponsored by the hospital, and there were hugs and tears all around. My aunt’s chain involved two hospitals: one in New Jersey, one in New York, with 12 people, saving 6 lives, including Iyanna McDuffie’s.