One is a school psychologist; the other is a classroom instructional assistant. These two women work in the same school district but never met until one needed a kidney and the other became her donor.
They met face to face for the first time in the cafeteria at Amy Beverland Elementary School. Beth Williams remembers watching Karen Murphy interact with the children in her care. Murphy is an instructional assistant for special needs students. Williams is a school psychologist. They both work for the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township but they never met until Williams learned that Murphy had a need.
She needed a kidney.
The tears that came down Murphy’s cheeks were a reminder to Williams of someone else who once needed a kidney – her dad. There was a time when Williams had offered to donate a kidney to her father, but it was too late. His illness was too far along. “When first diagnosed, he was advised to find potential donors, and I stepped up,” said Williams. “I remember he wrote a moving thank you and read it in our kitchen with all our family members present. I only saw him cry twice in his life: When his mother died and when he read this thank you to me. I was surprised because who wouldn’t do this for a family member? But we never got far along enough that I was actually tested for compatibility.”
Her father passed in January of 2016 and her mother passed in December of 2015. When her father was on dialysis, Williams accompanied him to treatment. In a journal of the experience she wrote: “After leaving the building with my husband, I began to cry and I’m not a crier. I wasn’t crying for my father: He had total short- term memory impairment and didn’t even recall that he was on dialysis. I was crying for all the people I saw lined around the room in dialysis chairs, young people, middle aged people, people who had to go to this place multiple times a week for multiple hours. What kind of life is that? Without dialysis, they would die. That’s a harsh reality.”
Williams didn’t know it at the time, but one individual was fighting hard to continue living without dialysis. At age 18, Karen Murphy was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD). About 600,000 people in the United States have been diagnosed with PKD – a genetic disease that leads to cysts on the kidneys. It is the fourth leading cause of kidney failure. Murphy is one of several in her family who suffered from PKD; some lost their battle with the disease. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s that her numbers began to change and she began seeing IU Health nephrologist Dr. Robert Bacallao.
“From day one he told me his goal was to keep me off of dialysis and if he didn’t, he would consider himself a failure,” said Murphy. She continued regular visits with Dr. Bacallo for 20 years. Then four years ago she had an appointment with Dr. Tim E. Taber, who specializes in kidney disease. He broke the news to her: She needed to start looking for a kidney donor.
There are currently 121,678 people on the waiting list for kidney transplant in the United States. The National Kidney Foundation estimates more than 3,000 new patients are added to the list each month. That means every 14 minutes someone new is added to the list.
“I remember my first thought was ‘how am I supposed to do that; where do you even start and how do you ask someone for something like that,?’” said Murphy, who is married with two adult daughters. It was one of her daughters who started a Facebook page in May of 2017 “Help Find a Kidney for Karen Murphy.”
One of the first posts read: “If anyone sees this I’m asking for your help. Please share my post. I need to keep the word out there. You never know who is reading it and they may feel moved to call and find out more about being a living kidney donor. It may be something they have thought about before.”
In fact, Williams had thought about donating a kidney before. A teacher friend shared the post. Williams recognized the name but had never met Murphy.
“I saw her post and could not put it out of my mind. It was like constantly being tapped on the shoulder,” said Williams, who has been married to her husband, Chris for 32 years. They are the parents of a son Jordan and a daughter Sarah.
“I discussed it with my husband, and eventually my kids. I knew that this was a serious commitment and if I made it, I didn’t want to back out,” said Williams. Once she made the decision, she asked to meet Murphy in person. “When I told her I would be tested, she started crying and hugged me. I guess this reminded me of my own father’s response years ago. I had this very strong feeling that at this point it was a ‘done deal’ and that I knew that I would be a match,” said Williams.
In fact she was a match. On June 1, 2018, under the care of IU Health surgeon William Goggins, Murphy received Williams’ kidney. Dr. Chandru Sundarum was Williams’ surgeon. The post on “Help Karen Murphy Find a Kidney” read: “I received the gift of a new life and I am so grateful for my donor and her gift. I came home yesterday and I couldn’t feel better. I am looking forward to this new chapter of my life. . . .Thank you to everyone who has followed me in this journey.”
Three months after surgery, Williams was back in the OR with Dr. Sundarum. This time she was observing a laparoscopic nephrectomy performed by Dr. Sudaram. Observing a surgery was something she had always dreamed of and after her own surgery the opportunity became available.
“I thought it was absolutely fascinating . . . was impressed with the diversity of the surgical team and how well all are orchestrated,” she said after the experience. Nearly four months post surgery, Williams vacationed in Spain and says recovery is much easier than she anticipated.
“I have felt the ongoing appreciation from Karen, and I love hearing about her health improvement,” said Williams. “At this point, I have this donation in the rear view mirror and I’m happy it’s behind me. I physically feel exactly the same as before surgery. I’m glad it’s over but I’m happy I did it, and given what I now know, I would do it again.”
And for Murphy, the meeting with Williams is somewhat of a miracle.
“Mr. Lefty, as we call my new kidney is working like a champ. My experience through all of this has been wonderful. I can’t say enough about the employees of the hospital. From the parking staff, housekeeping, food service – everyone made me feel so welcome,” said Murphy. “Then we have the nurses, doctors and office staff. I left the hospital to begin a new life and I felt I was so ready, there wasn’t a question or concern that wasn’t addressed.”
— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.