Kidney donor & recipient start as strangers, become friends

‘Hallmark doesn’t make a card for this,’ says Sanford Bismarck patient

Two mature women smile and hold a red kidney-shaped pillow.

Sharon Bitz of North Dakota was understandably nervous the day she was to meet Janelle Johnson of Kansas.

The two had never met face-to-face nor talked on the phone or exchanged texts or Facebook posts. For a long time, in fact, they didn’t even know other’s name. What they did know is that they shared a gift. And this gift has kept on giving.

Bitz wondered what she should say when Johnson walked in. And should she bring something? Do you say hello and shake hands or just play it by ear and let the other stranger, who had to had feel a little odd herself, take the lead on something like this?

It was impossible not to notice they were both wearing purple when Johnson walked into the doctor’s office where Bitz was waiting. It was an unplanned coincidence and one now they laugh about.

What followed after that was also unplanned, but no coincidence.

“I brought flowers and so did she,” Bitz said. “Then we hugged and we cried.”

In addition to the color purple and the flowers and the tears, they both had just one kidney. Both were Johnson’s kidneys originally. Now they shared the pair.

An altruistic organ donor

“I wasn’t nervous about any of it up to that point,” Bitz said. “Even before the surgery I was pretty calm and the doctors were wonderful. But sitting there in the doctor’s office waiting to meet the person that gave me her kidney I was like ‘What do I say? What do I do?’ Hallmark doesn’t make a card for receiving a body part. I really wasn’t sure where to go with this.”

Johnson, who teaches at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, is what is called an “altruistic donor.” It is the term used for people who consent to give away a kidney without knowing who will receive it. As such, she had the final say in whether she and Bitz would ever meet.

“I knew I had done a good thing,” Johnson said of that first meeting. “But when I met her, I knew I’d done the right thing.”

April is National Donate Life Month, drawing attention to donors like Johnson and the need for more of them. According to statistics from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there are close to 100,000 people waiting for kidney transplants in the U.S. today.

How to become an organ donor

A good first step is to register online:

In Johnson’s case, her commitment to the need for donors meant she was willing to pass along an organ she could do without. Saving a life in the process would be payment enough, regardless of whose life it was.

Both brought sisters with them to the introduction at Sanford Health in Bismarck, North Dakota. In Johnson’s case, it figured into why they were there in the first place. About 20 years earlier, her sister gave a kidney to a co-worker. She saw the benefits up close that time and had always been intrigued with the possibility. She also had a high school friend whose son received a kidney via an altruistic donor.

In that situation the donor stayed anonymous. Johnson, however, thought meeting Bitz could be helpful for both of them.

“It really closed the loop for me as far as the whole experience that I was able to meet Sharon,” Johnson said. “That’s not always possible because sometimes things don’t work out as well as you’d hope. We were just blessed in that way.”

Johnson was in the hospital just one night. Her recuperation from the procedure was also relatively minor. She “took it easy” she said, for a few weeks, recovering in North Dakota with her sister, who lives in the area, and then met Bitz the day before she flew back to Kansas.

‘I run on spare parts’

The two have since stayed updated on each other’s lives. On the six-month anniversary in September, Johnson sent Bitz a dozen roses.

“When the roses came, I said ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” Bitz said. “I should be sending flowers to her. She’s the one who made the sacrifice. But it was wonderful. On the one-year anniversary in March she sent me another bouquet of flowers and her daughter made me this really cute kidney picture that says ‘I run on spare parts.’”

Bitz’s health issues began when tests from her annual physicals revealed she might have kidney disease. When that was confirmed, she became a candidate for a kidney transplant, though she put off the reality of impending dialysis as long as she could.

Dialysis for her consisted of three four-hour sessions a week. It began in late September of 2019 with her sister at her side for every single session.

Bitz would look around the room during those dialysis sessions. She knew many of the patients had been on this schedule for a long time. Like her, they were waiting for kidneys. Given the fact that no one in her family could donate a kidney because of their own health issues, she expected a long wait, too.

Then she got a memorable call in January. They’d found someone willing to give up a healthy kidney.

“They told me they had a match,” Bitz said. “Then they asked if I wanted to go ahead with it. I said ‘Where do I sign?’ I didn’t think it was ever going to happen.”

In March of 2020 at the Sanford Bismarck Medical Center, the transplant took place.

For the greater good

In the more than a year since then, Johnson’s donated kidney has proven itself a warrior in Bitz’s body. The recipient dealt with knee replacement surgery — with doctors’ assurances she could handle it — as well as a serious bout with COVID-19.

Ironically, Johnson’s brother was born with just one kidney. Coupled with her sister donating hers years ago, now three among her four siblings have just one kidney. She sees that as a funny side note to the greater good. What more do we need to know other than that kidney is now helping someone else?

“When I came forward to give someone a kidney, I fully believed someone would have come forward and given me one if I’d needed it,” Johnson said. “It’s good to talk through some of those things. For the most part people were very supportive of giving up a kidney without knowing who was getting it. Maybe a few didn’t get the altruistic part of it, but I think they’d understand if it was their son or daughter who needed one.”

Plus, now she knows the person who has her kidney. The same goes for the person who got it.

“It’s like that kidney is made out of gold,” Bitz said. “It’s giving me a better life. I’ve thanked God for Janelle every day.”

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Posted In Bismarck, Organ Donation

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