When Cynthia Bowers learned she could donate an organ while still alive, she knew instantly that she wanted to do it. What she didn’t know is that her family would try to talk her out of it, health care professionals would resist her offers to donate a kidney, and doctors would comply with her demand to make sure the donation would save the life of a dying child.
Bowers was 30 years old and pregnant when she decided to go through with a live donation in 2007, and it would take more than a year to find an organization, a hospital and a set of doctors who would arrange a complex plan to get her kidney to a child who needed it.
Bowers’ first calls were met with astonishment and skepticism from health care professionals who responded as though she had lost her mind.
“I started calling hospitals and telling them I wanted to donate a kidney. They would ask ‘why, are you dying?,’” Bowers says. “I would say ‘no, I have two kidneys and I understand I only need one.’ And then, click. I figured they must have thought I was crazy.”
As Bowers persisted to find the right avenue to make her donation, an 11-year-old boy was dying at Phoenix Children’s Hospital — he was out of donation options and on a waiting list. His parents and family members had been tested and eliminated as possible matches for a vital kidney donation.
But Bowers was a near-perfect match.
“In the antibody tests, none of his antibodies attacked my cells,” Bowers says. “It was like we were actually siblings.”
Bowers had passed all of the initial tests months before, including an evaluation to ensure, as Bowers puts it, “that you’re not losing your mind and you’re well enough to do it.” But her aunt, a registered nurse, and her mother both thought the procedure was too risky — and painful.
“They didn’t want me to do it,” Bowers says. “My mom even called my husband to have him convince me not to do it.”
Bowers says she struggled with her decision, but remained resilient nonetheless. “During the process, there were a lot of times where I would question it,” she says. “I’d like to tell you that I was really brave the whole time, but the truth is I was scared. But there was never a time I thought I wouldn’t do it.”
Her resolve was bolstered by the support of her husband Jeff. “If he didn’t want me to do it, I wouldn’t have. He did a very courageous thing by supporting me in this thing I wanted to do,” Bowers says. “I don’t know that he totally understood it, but he could see how important it was to me.”
After struggling to get hospitals to take her seriously, Bowers hooked up with the Desert Samaritan Donor Center in January 2008. But she had to wait almost another year to donate because she was due to give birth and would need at least six months to recover between surgeries.
Bowers, though, had one more issue to deal with; she wanted to make sure her donation would go to a child. In most cases, anonymous donors are not allowed to make such specific requests, but Bowers convinced health care professionals to cut through the red tape and allow her to choose the recipient of her kidney.
The operation was scheduled the week before Christmas in 2008. Her surgeon at Banner Good Samaritan Hospital removed her kidney; it was transported immediately to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and placed into the waiting child. And that was it. No information from the boy’s doctors or updates on his status was provided; it was an anonymous donation.
“The hardest part of it is feeling very connected to someone who you can never meet,” Bowers says. “I can never know anything about his medical status — then or now. I don’t know if he’s even alive today.”
As she lay in her hospital bed on the second night after the operation, she admitted that her aunt “was right about the pain.”
Then she got a surprise visit from the surgeon who completed the transplant. Bowers still remembers the surgeon’s words: “I put your kidney in the boy. Soon after, he got his color back and he started asking for pizza and hot dogs, and he wanted to go play again.”
The surgeon validated all the anxiety leading up to the operation, Bowers says. “After that, I knew I had made the right decision,” she says. “I felt like I started recovering right then.”
She was released from the hospital on Dec. 22, 2008. She says the first five days after the operation were difficult, but there have been no side effects and she feels great. “I have a scar, and they tell me not to get dehydrated. I was back at work two weeks later.”