SHERIDAN — On Dec. 22, Hayley Bachel celebrated the day she got a second chance at life. She calls it her kidney-versary, and since 2016, she has spent six additional holiday seasons with her daughters — ones she wasn’t sure she would see.
“We usually get a cake and call it my second birthday. It was lifesaving,” Bachel said, explaining that she received a donor kidney and pancreas because of kidney failure due to Type 1 diabetes. She had been sick since she was 7 years old and was on dialysis by age 24.
“I was 25, and I had been sick basically my whole life,” she said, remembering her time on the transplant list. “When I was on dialysis, it was horrible.”
At the time, she had a daughter who was almost 2 and one who was 5.
“They had to see me sick all the time,” she said.
Once she was told a match had been found, but hours later, found out the transplant would not go through.
“People think you are on a list, like, one, two, three, but it’s whoever matches the most,” Bachel said. “The morning I got my call, my daughter, who was 5 at the time, answered the phone. When they said it was University of Colorado hospital calling, she dropped the phone and yelled, ‘It’s a kidney!’”
Bachel went to Denver that same day for surgery. She was not nervous, she said, because anything was better than dialysis.
“I was more sad that someone else had to die in order for me to live. It was a mix of emotions,” she said.
According to Ryea’ O’Neill, community relations coordinator for Donor Alliance in Wyoming, only 1% of the deaths that occur in the U.S. occur in such a manner that the deceased is a candidate for organ donation. People must be on a ventilator and in the hospital at the time of death, and if they are chosen as a donor, traditional funeral rites with an open casket are still possible.
In Wyoming, about 99% of people who say yes to becoming an organ donor do so when getting or renewing their driver’s license. People can also register to be a donor at DonateLifeWyoming.Org. What it means when you mark yes, O’Neill said, is that you will donate your organs, eyes or tissue, so whatever is viable or determined viable by medical professionals, for donation after death.
When someone is close to death, the first thing to happen is medical professionals will do everything they can to save that person’s life, O’Neill said. When there is no chance left and a patient is pronounced dead, Donor Alliance will determine if someone was a candidate for donation.
“That rarity of someone becoming an organ donor is really why we encourage people to register,” she said.
One donor can help more than 75 people, O’Neill said. According to Courtney Brunkow, who does public relations for Donor Alliance, 150 Wyoming residents are waiting on a lifesaving transplant.
“That’s just an organ, and does not include the thousands and thousands more that are in need of a tissue transplant or a cornea transplant,” Brunkow said.
Sixty-two percent of Wyoming residents are signed up to be donors, but the need for lifesaving transplants still outweighs the number of donors, Brunkow said. Alan Dubberley, marketing manager at Sheridan Memorial Hospital, said the hospital does not conduct organ transplants. When a patient is identified as needing an organ transplant, they’re referred to a tertiary care center that handles transplants to be evaluated by their donor team. Where the actual transplant takes place depends on the closest location to get the patient and the organ together for the actual surgery.
SMH does do organ recovery, Dubberley said. When a patient who has agreed to be a donor has been evaluated as a viable candidate and passes away, the critical care team will collect donations.
“If Donor Alliance has decided they are a candidate, they come up here and we start deciding which organs would be viable. They go through the national organ transplant network looking for recipients,” Lynn Grady, interim critical care director said. “During this time, the family is still able to be with the patient. If we are able to donate after cardiac death, the family is able to go back to the OR to say their final goodbyes.”
Family and staff often write letters remembering the deceased patient, read them aloud and play comforting music during the process. Before the deceased patient is taken to the OR, the family is taken outside as hospital staff raises the Donor Alliance flag.
“We have a chaplain that says a prayer, and we really try to include the family and express our gratitude that they are willing to give this donation to help others live,” Grady said.
People want to give, she said, and organ donation is the ultimate gift.
“We want to make sure we give them that option. We want to explain about the lives they are able to help. Perhaps it’s a mother with kids so she can care for them,” Grady said “We don’t want to pressure anyone, but giving the option is very important.”
Often, she said, Donor Alliance is able to look for local recipients first. When her own uncle passed away at 35, Grady said he became a donor.
“It was great to receive that letter, and to see where his heart was able to be donated,” Grady said. “It’s wonderful when we can do this.”
When Bachel received her donor organs, she agreed to talk to the donor’s family if they wished.
“It was almost a year after my transplant that I got a letter from them,” she said. “I met with them at a restaurant in Denver. My donor was 18. She died of heart complications, and as soon as her mom saw me, she started crying and hugging me.”
Bachel had her girls with her, and now, whenever she sees her donor’s mother, she gives them something of her daughter’s.
“It is sad, no matter how you look at it. But her mom made sure to tell me, ‘You had nothing to do with her death, and out of her death we ended up giving you more Christmases with your kids’,” Bachel said.
The donor pancreas began to fail last year, and Bachel is back on insulin. The kidney is still functional, and taking insulin and dealing with diabetes, she said, is much better than being on dialysis. Bachel is hopeful for a healthy future.
“I have always marked yes on being a donor, and now sitting on the other end, it’s crazy,” Bachel said. “It was the best Christmas present ever.”