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A 'Thanksgiving with renewed significance' helps shine light on need for living donors

A 'Thanksgiving with renewed significance' helps shine light on need for living donors

Caption: Rita Higgins, left, has a memorable Thanksgiving to celebrate this year, as she received a kidney from her niece, Nicole ‘Coco’ Doty, earlier this month, after enduring four years on dialysis.

When Rita Higgins’ kidneys failed, her life changed drastically. The 64-year-old woman began dialysis three times a week, became increasingly exhausted and eventually felt unable to leave her home to see her seven grandchildren participate in sports and school activities.

As four years on dialysis passed, her family’s hopes for a kidney transplant began to wane.

Higgins, like many of the 164 patients on the waiting list for a kidney transplant at Upstate University Hospital, rested her best hopes on the possibility of being matched with a live donor. Live donors are usually part of about one-third of all kidney transplants at Upstate. Although the hospital has performed 66 kidney transplants this year--its highest annual rate to date--only eight transplants have involved live donors.

“Live donor transplant has the greatest potential to solve the organ shortage problem that we face,” said transplant surgeon Vaughn Whittaker, MD. “Today, there are 122,562 patients waiting for an organ transplant. This means there are 2,660 persons for each person who needs a potential organ. And live donor transplants have terrific outcomes, with a 95.1 percent one-year graft survival.”

Higgins’ niece, Nicole ‘Coco’ Doty, 33, a beloved teacher at Lanigan Elementary School in Fulton, and mother of four energetic children, went on a secret fact-finding mission. Without a word to her husband or mother, she started the long testing process to see if it was possible to donate her kidney to save her aunt’s life.

“The first blood test was easy to keep a secret, but when they needed a 24-hour urine sample, that was more difficult to hide,” Doty explains. She remembers carefully selecting a day that she could collect the sample without drawing suspicion.

When the initial tests showed that she was a potential donor for Higgins, Doty revealed her plans to her husband and mother. “He knew that I would do what I wanted to, and supported me fully,” Doty recalled. “My mom had a lot more questions; she was nervous.” Upstate’s Whittaker helped answer those questions.

The family was ready to tell Higgins that she would be receiving her new kidney, but she was diagnosed with kidney cancer and had to undergo surgery. Once the cancer was eradicated and Higgins was once again a candidate for the transplant, the family gathered and told her that Doty would be giving her the gift of life.

“I was sent an angel, an angel on earth in Coco [Doty],” Higgins said after the surgery in early November. “I am excited to get my life back, to just go out and see a movie. I can’t wait for those things.”

Whitaker cannot express enough gratitude for live donors.

“The golden thread through the tapestry of this beautiful story is the unselfish love and kind generosity of the donor, Coco, who provided a gift when it was least expected with class and elegance that is unrivaled,” he said. “Rita had the rare combination of serendipity, good fortune and alignment of health factors that allowed her to take advantage of a gift she didn’t even know existed. This Thanksgiving will have renewed significance for them.”

Last year at this time, Upstate gathered transplant recipients and donor for a celebration of its first ever kidney transplant chain, made possible by live donors.

For more information on Transplant Services at Upstate and how to be a kidney donor, visit Transplant.