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A gift that will keep on giving

Jackie Gorman will donate a kidney to a man she doesn't know. Though some of us might have trouble understanding why, she knows exactly why.

November 02, 2010|Sandy Banks

There are lots of things I've thought about doing down the road, when my nest empties and my career ends. I could take a cooking class or a trip to Bali, pound out a novel or plant a vegetable garden.

Jackie Gorman's wish list is more focused: She wants to donate a kidney to a stranger. And UCLA's Living Donor Transplant program is making it happen this week.

It's a desire Gorman has nursed for 10 years, since she interned as a hospital chaplain at UCLA. There she grew close to a diabetic woman whose kidneys had failed; who had spent years waiting for a transplant. The patient issued a challenge the chaplain couldn't forget.

"We were losing her," Gorman recalled. "I told her, 'I wish I could do more.' And she said 'You could. Sign up to be a kidney donor so somebody like me doesn't have to die.' I'd never had anyone call my bluff like that. I promised myself I would follow up."

Gorman couldn't do it then — her husband objected, her children were small, she was working as a lawyer and couldn't afford time off for the major surgery kidney donation required.

But her children grew up, she and her husband divorced, and medical advances made the donation process less arduous. When she found herself jobless at 55, Gorman went to UCLA's Living Donor program and signed up.

She went through months of medical and psychological exams, and spent hours researching the process. She found she had a rare blood type that made her a perfect match for a man in New Jersey who was near the top of the national waiting list.

Gorman was so excited when the phone call came, she wanted everyone in her world to know. She was armed with facts to counter their fears, but she wasn't prepared for their criticism.

"I thought they'd calm down once they realized it's not really dangerous," she said. But they weren't stuck on the medical process; they where stuck on the concept. Giving up a body part to a stranger?

Donating a kidney to a friend or family member is considered a loving and selfless gesture. But giving a body part to a total stranger is seen as oddly sacrificial, stupid, even selfish.

What if he's not a nice guy; she saves his life and he goes out and kills somebody? What if her remaining kidney is damaged in an accident? What if her sisters need a kidney down the line? Or their children? Or her children?

"All of a sudden everybody has a kidney problem, where they never did before," Gorman told me with a wry smile, her blue eyes twinkling untroubled.

"If one of my family members needed a kidney, I'd hope someone would donate, just like I'm donating to this man," she said.

Still, she understands the discomfort or revulsion that some feel. Even her interactions with doctors have felt odd. "The notion of a healthy person submitting to surgery like this, when they don't have to … it's very unsettling."

But it's more than the idea of unnecessary surgery that people find so troubling. After all, we go under the knife all the time in service of vanity. It's the extent of the commitment that challenges us.

She's no angel or hero, she said. "That's the firefighter, rushing into a burning building." Gorman simply believes it's our obligation to relieve suffering when we can.

"I've been in the hospital with someone I love, watching him die, wishing someone would save him and no one did," she said, recounting her father's death many years ago.

"People say 'You don't know this person.' But I know he's suffering. And he's somebody's father."

And after he receives Gorman's kidney on Friday, his daughter (who was not a match for her dad) will donate one of her kidneys to a woman she does not know in New York.

Chains like these are becoming more common, but are still just a drop in a sea of suffering. More than 50,000 people across the country are waiting for new kidneys, tethered to dialysis machines and medication regimens. Half of them never ask for help; others rely on family and friends, and thousands have signed up for an online site that charges a fee to post photos and profiles of people seeking kidneys.

Gorman spent hours trolling that site when she decided to give someone the gift of life. She understands why it is easier to give to someone you know — or to someone you select from a list because they "deserve" to live.

"You see the suffering of these people, you read their stories, and it hurts," she said. There's the teenage Girl Scout who is dreaming of college, the engineer who wants to play tournament bridge again, the father who wants to walk his daughter down the aisle, the single mother who has to get back to work or she'll lose her home and maybe her kids.

"I'm still haunted by the people I can't give my kidney to," Gorman said. But she's also bothered by "all the requirements and pre-conditions … the people who say "I only want to give to a Christian, or somebody who's not a drug user."

Does she want to hear from her recipient, I asked. Gorman shrugged and looked away from her lunch. "I really don't have any expectations at all," she said. "No demands. No hopes."

Just an offering. "I actually think I'm really lucky to be in a position to do this," she said. "Science is ahead of our own human heart and soul. We're able to accomplish medical miracles that our minds are not ready to accept.

"But it's really pretty wonderful to have a chance to look at life as more than just what happens to me."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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