Tracy Hamilton of Palm Coast prays for the miracle of a kidney transplant that could extend, and boost, her quality of life.
Tracy Hamilton is 45 years old. While still full of life in spirit, her body has betrayed that vitality over the last 20 years and counting.
She can show you the bandaged wound on her upper left arm from dialysis injections into a graft placed in her bicep that caused an infection. And the port in her right chest where that dialysis currently has to be administered, three times a week, for three and half hours at a clip, attached to a machine. She can point out, too, the scars on her legs and other parts of her body that have not healed properly. Not having a functioning renal system, which removes harmful toxins from the body, can do that.
Hamilton, originally from Chattanooga, moved to Palm Coast four years ago specifically to be closer to the Mayo Clinic of Jacksonville, the closest large regional health facility offering organ donations. Hamilton, who developed Type 1 diabetes as a 9-year-old girl, has struggled for nearly all her life to keep her health in check.
In 2002, doctors put her on a list for both a pancreatic and kidney transplant, both of which she received. Three years later, her pancreas stopped working; in 2009, she received another one. In 2011, the donated kidney she'd received began to show signs of dysfunction.
For the last three years, Hamilton has undergone regular dialysis treatment to do the job her body can no longer do on its own. Part of the reason is because in both the cases of her "new" pancreas and kidney, a deceased donor's organs were implanted to replace Hamilton's own. While that can extend life, organs from a living donor can prolong it even more, by almost double in some cases.
Hamilton relies on her husband, John, to help with much of her caregiving, including the days she is too tired to walk their dogs, cook or keep up with the house, all while he holds down a full-time position as a computer analyst. He also tries to go with her to as many of her dialysis appointments as he can.
But it's become almost too much to bear, both financially and emotionally.
Hamilton has been on the waiting list for a new kidney at Mayo's Jacksonville facility for a year now. She got a call in December that an almost perfect match was awaiting, only to get to the clinic and be told that a wound her dog gave her was enough to nix the deal because of fear of infection. It's also harder to match previous transplant recipients because of the antibodies their bodies have built up from past procedures.
And if she doesn't receive a transplant, what then?
"A lifetime of dialysis, I guess," Hamilton said with a reluctant half-smile.
Friend turned donor
Don LeBrun knows what Hamilton is going through, the kind of narrow periscope she's staring down. In his case, fortunately, the solution to his weaning kidney function came from a family friend. Hearing of his situation, the friend -- a middle-aged wife and mother he knew while still living in Indiana -- volunteered to be tested as a match for a kidney donation to LeBrun.
Kidneys are matched by way of six different biological markers.
"She just told me, I don't know how, but this is going to work," LeBrun recalled.
It turned out, she had five of the six markers and doctors went ahead and scheduled a transplant for Dec. 26, 2001.
"We were wheeled into adjoining operating rooms," LeBrun said.
It was a virtual cure for the polycystic kidney disease LeBrun had combatted most of his adult life up until then. Now 65 and since retired in Palm Coast, LeBrun said his health "is better than it has a right to be," with a light laugh.
A new lease on life
For Stephen Smith of Flagler Beach, the gift of transplant has also proven to be a life-safer. Smith, originally of New Hampshire, moved here with his wife, Tess, part-time 12 years ago, partially due in fact that, like Hamilton, he wanted to be close to a medical institution like Mayo that specializes in organ donation.
Smith, who contracted hepatitis C during a surgery nearly 30 years ago, saw his liver began to fail about that time and was place on a waiting list for transplant. Unlike kidney donation, liver donation is based only on blood type.
Four and a half months after arriving in Florida, the call came. The liver would come from a deceased donor.
"Thanks to somebody's kindness in their time of grief, I'm alive today," Smith, 62, said, shaking his head in gratitude.
His wife, Tess, shares that gratitude.
"The gift of life ... are you kidding me?" Tess Smith said, tearing up. "There's nothing else."
Paying it forward
For Diana Becker LeBrun, the selfless attitude of her husband's donor inspired her to explore organ donation.
"I had this kind of pay it forward kind of thing in my mind," Becker LeBrun said.
After researching the subject -- including any health risks -- as well as an admitted touch of anxiety about the procedure, LeBrun volunteered as a kidney donor for a man in his mid-40s whose mother she had met in a hospital in Indiana. She met him for the first time on the day of the procedure in 2002.
Has she have any second thoughts?
No, Becker LeBrun said emphatically. Her other working kidney has completely stepped up to the job of both, and she's never had any side effects.
As Becker LeBrun said, "It's kind of like God gives us two kidneys so that we can give one away."