Posted by Steve Lettau on Jan 09, 2020

Editor's Note: This is the fifth annual appearance of What It’s Like, a proven favorite with readers inside and outside Rotary. - The Rotarian

Sterling Gaston - Rotary Club of Fishkill, New York

I have polycystic kidney disease. My brother and I inherited it from our mother, who died from it. It can cause high blood pressure and aneurysms, both of which I’ve had. My nephrologist said, “If you pay attention to what I tell you and eat what I tell you and take the following prescriptions, you’ll get 15 years out of those kidneys before you start having trouble.” Well, I followed what she said and sure enough I did get 15 years. But then I started having trouble. I had a series of kidney stones, and then CAT scans found hundreds of little cysts on my kidneys. So seven years ago, I got myself on the donor list. I knew I had to nurse these puppies and hope I would get a donor before things got really bad.

Several years ago, Julie approached my wife, Chris, about being the donor. It was at the Christmas party for the Fishkill club. I could see them talking over on the other side of the room. But you know, it’s a social thing. And we were all good friends, so it was no big deal. Chris asked her, “Why are you coming to me rather than Sterling?” Julie said, “Because I know him. If I go to him and say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ he’s going to say, ‘No, Julie, just cool it. I’m on the donor list.’” And she was probably right. So the two of them ganged up on me. That’s how we wound up doing it.

It’s been almost 20 years since I hired Julie as the director of the library where I was president of the board. We were in contact on a daily basis and struck up a wonderful friendship over the years. I eventually got Julie involved in Rotary. We’ve both been president of the club. She’s a very community-minded person. But when she offered to donate me her kidney, I was absolutely blown away. And honestly, she saved me. At that point, my kidneys were working so badly that they were down to less than 8 percent of capacity. If I hadn’t had a transplant in the works, I would have had to go on dialysis.

At the time Julie came to me, I didn’t know that the odds were so stacked against us being a match. But the way it works with the United Network of Organ Sharing is that if you donate a kidney, you can designate the recipient. And if you aren’t a match with that person, they’ll donate your kidney to a matching recipient, but they’ll also move your designated recipient up to the top of the list in your blood type, sort of like a round robin. Julie was fine with that, which further astounded me. Her reaction was: If that’s the way it goes, great. I’ll be helping two people. She had a commitment to do this, and she wanted to do it for me.

We both went in for the surgery the same day. Normally, they would implant the donated kidney in addition to your other kidneys. But both of my kidneys were so severely damaged that they had to be removed. I was in the hospital for six days. I had kind of a bumpy road for the first month, because one of the immunosuppressant drugs caused gastric distress. I lost 21 pounds in 17 days. But now I just have to take two pills in the morning and two in the afternoon; most kidney recipients have to take four or five times that every day, so it was an amazing match.

Most donors and recipients don’t keep track of each other. But my wife and I regularly get together with Julie for lunch or dinner. And I see her at Rotary every Wednesday morning. We had a wonderful relationship before. But it’s deeper and more meaningful now.

As told to Steve Almond