One woman turned her family’s health challenges into both lifetime advocacy and a selfless example for others.
Karen Denko has heard all the joking around about transplants before, including one person who asked, “What’s up with your family and kidneys?”
Such comments come from people trying to process Denko’s unusual experience of two family members receiving kidney transplants—including one from her—and her efforts to encourage more people to sign up to donate.
“Most people just don’t even think about it because it hasn’t personally touched them, or they might think, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t want my organs,’” Denko says regarding the responses her organ donation sign-up efforts have elicited.
Regarding the latter concern, Denko notes that even people with organs damaged by disease may have other organs that are perfectly capable of saving someone’s life.
Her efforts to encourage people to sign up as end-of-life donors stem from her personal history with the cause, which dates back to her niece’s first transplant 21 years ago. Denko’s sister, Nancy, donated her kidney to her daughter, and it functioned well until five years ago.
When the replacement kidney failed, Denko had one of the toughest conversations of her life with her husband, Mike. Denko was a match to her niece, but she knew her own husband, who had advancing kidney disease, likely also would need a transplant in the coming years. But Mike didn’t see the quandary.
“He said he would never forgive himself if I didn’t do it because of him, so we made a joint decision to go ahead and do the transplant,” says Denko, who is a manager in the corporate billing office of Spectrum Health.
Although Denko’s donation to her niece was successful and both of them have recovered well, Mike’s condition—focal glomerulosclerosis—continued to deteriorate, and a couple years ago he was added to the transplant list. That’s when they confronted the transplant wait time, which for his blood type in Michigan was five to seven years.
It’s a challenge that’s reflected nationwide, where there are nearly 119,000 people waiting for transplants, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). That wait comes despite more than 33,000 U.S. organ transplants occurring in 2016. Despite advances in medicine and technology, and increased awareness of organ donation and transplantation, the gap between supply and demand continues to widen, HRSA notes.
Thankfully, one of Mike’s sisters, Jill, was a match to him and able to donate a kidney. In January 2016, he received the donated organ, and both donor and recipient have recovered well.
“If you’ve been a part of it, you understand the difference it can make in a person’s life—in regards to their quality of life,” Denko says. “Even though my husband wasn’t on dialysis, he has noticed a really big difference in how he feels—and I have noticed the difference, too.
“They often say you don’t know how bad you feel until you get the new kidney, especially in a situation like that where it is slowly progressing.”
That quality-of-life difference is a big part of Denko’s continued push to get people to sign up as organ donors, which they usually can do by making a simple selection when they renew their driver’s license.
“It’s a huge thing for everybody to have it on their driver’s licenses so their wishes can be known,” Denko says.
Her own donation has not had much of a health effect on her. She undergoes annual blood tests now as a preventive step to protect her remaining kidney and avoids medications that are hard on kidneys.
“The statistics are really very good, and that’s because you have to already be pretty healthy to be a kidney donor,” Denko says. “They really protect the donor.”
Denko has met a lot of other donors and their families over the years while attending the Transplant Games of America with her niece, who competed for several years. That competition, which is held in different cities every two years, brings together living donors, the families of deceased donors, and organ recipients.
“The donor families are probably the most impactful people that I met through that experience,” Denko says. “It’s really hard to keep a dry eye when you hear the donor families talk about the loved ones they lost.”