On Mother’s Day, Mindy Lam will be celebrating the most precious gift of all—the kidney she received in a living-donor transplant from her 19-year-old daughter, Kelly Sia.
“I feel incredibly blessed and happy to have someone who loves me so much,” says the 45-year-old jewelry designer from Rockville, Maryland. “My angel daughter has given me back my health.”
Three years ago, Mindy was far too ill to mark Mother’s Day. In fact, she almost died in May, 2010. “Her body suddenly swelled up like a water balloon, and she couldn’t even walk,” Kelly recalls.
Mindy was rushed to the emergency room. “All I remember is that I was extremely cold, then I fainted," the single mom recalls. "When I woke up in the ICU, a friend said my heart had stopped and the doctors had to shock me twice to bring me back."
Doctors at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore diagnosed her with hypertensive nephropathy—untreated high blood pressure that over time had damaged her kidneys beyond repair. Nearly one in three adults—67 million Americans—have high blood pressure and 36 million of them don’t have their condition under control, the CDC recently reported.
“Ms. Lam didn’t know she had high blood pressure, because it has no symptoms in the early stages,” reports David Leeser, MD, the medical center’s chief of kidney and pancreas transplantation.
Many are unaware of the danger; hypertension (a blood pressure reading of 140/90 or above) contributes to nearly 1,000 deaths a day. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for chronic kidney disease (CKD), which affects 4.4 million Americans and lacks early warning signs. By the time CKD symptoms—which can include loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss, nausea, swelling, headaches, and nausea—occur, says Dr. Leeser, “it can be too late to save the kidneys.”
Mindy was so stunned to be diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease that she almost passed out. “My first reaction was, ‘I’m done—my life is over.’” However, doctors explained that she had two options: a transplant or dialysis.
Kelly, then 16, wanted to donate a kidney, but at the time, she was too young. (The minimum age to be a living donor is 18, according to Dr. Leeser.) Other relatives also offered to donate, but Mindy thought it sounded too risky.
Nor did she have much hope of getting an organ from a deceased donor, because there are currently more than 102,000 Americans on the waiting list for a kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Mindy opted for peritoneal dialysis, which uses the peritoneal membrane that surrounds the abdominal cavity and internal abdominal organs to filter blood. This type of dialysis required her to hook up to equipment five times a day. In contrast to another type of dialysis, called hemodialysis, she did not have to go to a hospital or other facility to undergo the procedure.
For a time, Mindy, who traveled frequently to sell her jewelry collections at high-end department stores and boutiques, tried to continue working but was plagued by dialysis complications, including potentially life-threatening catheter infections that landed her in the ICU.
“It was heartbreaking and very scary to see my mom, who had worked so hard to support me, suffering all of the time," recalls Kelly. "One day, I started crying uncontrollably, thinking about how she was missing out on life—she was too sick to go to Hong Kong and visit her parents, couldn’t work, and spent most of her time lying in bed. Sometimes, she’d start screaming and vomiting, then black out.”
When Kelly turned 18, she again volunteered to donate her kidney. “I told my mom that she’d given me life, and I wanted to help her, but it took a while to get her to agree,” says the college student, who turned out to be a match. Living kidney donors don’t have to be genetically related, but they must have the same blood type.
Dr. Leeser reports that living donor kidney transplantation is a very safe procedure for donors, but has the usual risks of any surgery, which can include infections, excessive bleeding and in rare cases, anesthesia reactions. Although Mindy was worried about these dangers, “when Kelly turned out to be a match, I thought, ‘it’s meant to be.’ ”
On February 15, 2013, the two women checked into the University of Maryland Medical Center for the procedure, which takes about three hours. “It was such a perfect day—right after Valentine’s Day—and I was so excited and proud to give my mom my kidney,” recalls Kelly. Mindy, however, worried about the potential risks.
After the three-hour surgery, performed through a incision near the belly button, Mindy could tell almost immediately that the new kidney was working. “Everything came into focus and for the first time in three years, I felt normal. It was only then that I realized how sick I’d been.”
Kelly woke up in a bed next to her mom. “My belly was really swollen and I was so groggy that when I tried to walk, I felt like a pregnant 90-year-old. But by the second day, they let me go home. When I got to our apartment, I saw all the boxes of my mom’s dialysis fluid piled up in our hall and burst into tears of joy that she wouldn’t be needing them any more.”
Today, nearly three months after the surgery, mom and daughter have both recovered completely. They both have scars near their belly buttons, and Kelly considers hers a badge of honor. “It’s more precious than a tattoo and symbolizes the rebirth of my mom.”
Two months after the transplant, Mindy was back on the road again, selling her jewelry during a flower show at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with her daughter by her side. Once bedridden and unable to even walk around a mall, she can now run on a treadmill and feels completely normal.
Kelly, who took a year off from college to help take care of her mom, plans to study culinary arts. She’s secretly learned to make her mom’s favorite cookies—macaroons—and has whipped up a batch for Mother’s Day. She has several other surprises planned, but none can top her amazing gift of life—and love.
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