Interview of the Week with Harry Kiernan: The Dual Living Organ Donor

There are well over 100,000 people in the US with a terminal condition in need of an organ transplant. For over 90% of them, it is a terminal condition that can be reversed literally overnight – says Harry Kiernan, a dual living organ donor. He talks about how he has become a living donor and saved two people’s lives.

Why did you become a living organ donor?

Almost everything in our lives affects us in some way. Just how is unknown most of the time. That is, until something happens where we become more aware and need to take action. For me, there were many such experiences. I am a Navy veteran and a former firefighter. I lost my wife in 1997 to Multiple Sclerosis. In 2006 one of my friends needed a kidney so I offered to donate mine. In the end, he didn’t need my help as his brother became his donor. However, a year later, I went to Hartford Hospital and spoke to the Living Organ Donor Coordinator and started the process. On June 6, 2007, Hartford Hospital removed my left kidney and transplanted it to a lady whom I met a month later. I was 54 and I believe she was 51.

About a year and a half after my kidney donation, I came across an article about living liver donation. When I found out that Yale/New Haven Hospital performs living liver donations, I contacted them. One of my ‘lines’ is: “My name is Harry, and I’m a recovering organ donor.” I just always felt that I could do more.

Could you choose the people you helped?

I did not want to be the one to choose who would live. I was told that with my blood type (O) and tissue type anyone could receive any organ from me. I believe that they choose patients who are less likely to be able to receive the needed organ from a deceased donor, given their special needs.

Are you in touch with the people you helped?

Not much. I don’t want them to think they owe me anything. I do see photos of the mother of the baby that received the lobe of my liver on Instagram but that’s all.

Why did you choose to offer your kidney and your liver and not any other part of your body?

I was only aware of kidney donations at the time. When I was made aware of living liver donors, I just felt that it was something I needed to do. It was the same with my kidney donation.

You take serious risks when you give away parts of your organs. In your words, what does it take to become a living donor?

The reasons people become living organ donors vary with each person. Some do it for family or loved ones and some after hearing of a friend in need. For non-directed donors, it’s just something they feel the need to do after being inspired. For most donors, once you make the decision, it becomes a drive that won’t go away..

How did you feel before you donated your organs and how are you feeling now?

I was in excellent health before my kidney donation and still feel the same way. I don’t mention it often, but after the kidney donation I had severe complications. I was back in the hospital for 2 weeks. The nurses told me months later that a few times they thought I wasn’t going to make it. Of course, I never felt that myself.

Social workers at a transplant clinic impress upon donors after their donation that depression is one of the ‘side effects’. As for my experience and that of others I have spoken with, the depression some may feel (to various degrees) comes from the feeling of being cast aside and no longer needed. What I’ve seen is donors feeling great about what they have done and feeling like they want to do more but then felt like they were told: “You can go home. We’re done with you now.”

How has becoming a living organ donor changed you mentally, physically and spiritually?

Being a living organ donor has, I hope, made me more aware of my overall being. I hope I eat a little bit better each day and want to help others more. A lady who is also a kidney donor called me once almost crying. She mentioned that her whole world has become much brighter, like living in high definition. For me, I had just accepted all those changes as part of life and never really thought of them, especially spiritually. Listening to her made me more aware of how I was seeing things also.

Knowing that I made a difference in not just two peoples’ lives, but that of their family & friends is very rewarding. But there will always be that feeling of wanting, or needing, to do more.

What would be your advice to someone who is thinking of becoming a living donor?

Make sure you have a very strong desire to become a living organ donor and that you are prepared to accept that all might not go well and also that you might not be a viable donor. For non-directed donation, you must let the recipient and their family go on with their lives and not expect to be a part of them. If they choose to let you in, great! They will always be grateful to you, but they owe you nothing. So go on and inspire others.

What is your message to the world?

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Just find out what that ‘something’ is for you and trust yourself.

What are your plans for the future?

I just hope that each day I am a better person than I was yesterday. And if I can have a positive impact on just one person each day, then that was a good day.

Anything else you would talk about?

A neighbor of mine once said to me after my donations: “Living donors are the only people in the transplant process that put their lives on the line and don’t get compensated one dime.” Now remember, not all of them survive the process.

I have always said that donating my organs was just the right thing to do. I remember being interviewed and asked: “So, what’s it like to be a hero?” My response has always been: “Has the world become so cowardly that simply doing the right thing makes you a hero? I certainly hope not!”

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