Gift of Life: Alto Woman Donates Kidney

Heather Gray and Jen Dougherty (l to r)

Give a kidney, get a friend.

That could be one takeaway from the story of Jen Dougherty and Heather Gray. The women didn’t know each other four years ago, but a kidney donation brought the two together and a friendship has blossomed.

Dougherty learned of Gray’s need for a kidney through a video shared on Facebook back in 2020. As a blood donor already, Dougherty knew her blood type was a match and so she emailed the University of Michigan about being a donor.

“I’d done this twice for two other people and never got a call back,” Dougherty shares.

This time was different, though, and late last year, Dougherty donated one of her kidneys to Gray. The operation was a success, leaving Dougherty with no side effects and Gray with a kidney that is “working like gangbusters,” according to doctors.

Liver Disorder Leads to Need for Kidney

Dougherty’s kidney wasn’t the first transplant for Gray. The Lowell resident had a rare liver disorder known as Alagille syndrome. The condition causes bile to build-up in the liver and ultimately damages this vital organ.

In 2013, Gray received a liver transplant which was successful but negatively affected her kidneys. “After the transplant, my kidneys started failing,” she explains. “They thought my kidneys would bounce back, but they didn’t.”

Kidneys are essential organs that filter waste and excess water from the body. While human bodies typically have two kidneys, most people can live with just one. That makes living donation a possibility.

“A kidney from a living donor is a higher quality and will last a long time,” Gray says.

With the waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor being 5-7 years long, doctors advised Gray to begin searching for a living donor. In July 2020, she posted a video on Facebook looking for a potential match, and that video eventually made its way to Dougherty’s newsfeed.

Long Process from Match to Donation

Dougherty, who lives in Alto, was approved by the University of Michigan Transplant Center in October 2020, but it would be more than three years before the transplant actually took place.

Among the delays was the fact that Gray’s kidneys actually rebounded for a brief period. They were deemed healthy enough to take her off the transplant list but eventually began to lose function again.

Once that happened, Dougherty needed to go through two days of testing at UM which included evaluating her kidneys and performing a battery of cancer screenings. There was also a psychological assessment to ensure that she was donating for the right reasons and understood the ramifications.

“One of the questions they ask is, ‘What if it doesn’t work – are you prepared for that?” Dougherty says. Medical professionals want to be sure that the donor understands that no transplant is a sure thing and sometimes surgeries end badly for the recipient.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for Gray. Her new kidney began working immediately, and Gray calls the gift “life-changing.” Her kidney function jumped from 15% to 80%, and she is no longer haunted by the prospect of dialysis or worse.

Become a Living Donor

“The hardest thing for me was to explain why,” Dougherty says. People wanted to know why she would give up a kidney for someone she didn’t know. For her, the answer was simple: “She needs (a kidney), and I can help.”

While the screenings required to be a donor weren’t always pleasant, Dougherty says the donation surgery was far easier than she anticipated. She didn’t even leave the hospital with stitches. The removal was a laparoscopic surgery, and the incision site was glued shut.

“It was far less scary and far less painful than I thought,” she says. In preparation for the surgery, she went to the gym to strengthen her core muscles and believes that may have helped. She was in the hospital one night and back to regular activity in no time.

Dougherty also hasn’t experienced any negative side effects or noticed any changes since downsizing to one kidney. “(The doctors) told me I should drink more water and eat less salt,” she says. Beyond that, she hasn’t needed to adjust her life in any way, and through online communities, she has heard from people who donated decades ago and have never noticed a change in their health as a result of giving away a kidney.

And for Dougherty and Gray, their connection didn’t end with the surgery. They two women consider each other friends now, meeting for coffee and catching up whenever they can.

Not everyone can be a living kidney donor – you’ll need to be a healthy weight and not have certain conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. Those who are eligible, though, have the opportunity to change – and even save – the life of another person.

For more information on how to become a living kidney donor, visit the University of Michigan Transplant Center website.

1 Comment

  1. This is just one of many amazing things that Jen has and is doing. Where there is a need, Jen is there giving 100%. She is an amazing gal and friend

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