The effect process of donating a kidney has had, on both daughter and donor Holly Highhouse and mother and recipient Vivian Peck, is hard for them to explain; both find it a deeply personal experience. For Peck, it meant a sense of liberation she hadn’t experienced in decades.
“I was driving this winter with my mom and daughter in the car with me, and we got to the top of a mountain and ran into one of those sudden snow squalls that just whites everything out. And as I felt the car start to slide around, I very calmly turned back to my mom and told her to put a blanket over her lap, and if the car left the road, to tuck into a ball with the blanket held against her stomach. My daughter asked why I told her that, and I said, ‘Because I have to protect my kidney!’”
Despite her months of constant fatigue, despite the fact that she bookends this anecdote with stories of weeks of intense pain (and food poisoning), Holly Highhouse laughs at this story. It’s a sanguine reaction, one she admits she wouldn’t have had before the surgery that changed both her and her mother, Vivian Peck’s, life.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” Holly says.
The effect the donation process had on both Highhouse’s and Peck’s life is hard for them to explain; both find it a deeply personal experience. For Peck, it meant a sense of liberation she hadn’t experienced in decades.
“I’ve had multicystic kidney disease for the past thirty years,” Peck says, “and I always knew that someday I’d need a new kidney. When my bloodwork started coming back at 10% it got to the point that I was going to have to find a donor quickly or I’d be facing dialysis.”
Peck and Highhouse traveled together to the University of Pennsylvania, renowned for its skill at kidney transplants. After one workshop on dialysis (”Horrifying,” Highhouse calls it) the pair decided on their course of action; Highhouse would donate one of her kidneys to save her mother’s life.
“I was scared, but a part of me felt like this might have been part of my purpose in life,” Highhouse says. “I’ve talked to a lot of people since the operation and I was surprised how many of them said they wouldn’t be able to do it. For me it wasn’t a question. She’s my mom.”
“I still can’t believe she did it,” Peck says. “It was a wonderful thing she did and a great experience. We’ve never had any second thoughts.”
However, there was plenty of opportunity for them. Highhouse said she and her mother faced four grueling months of compatibility tests, all the while learning more about a process that got more intimidating as it drew nearer.
“I was warned there would be a lot of pain in the recovery,” Highhouse says, “but I don’t think I knew how bad it would be. It turned out they were able to take my left kidney, which meant I had laparoscopic surgery rather that facing a large incision. But the recovery wasn’t any easier, and two weeks after the surgery I was still crying when I sat up.”
Despite all the pain, Highhouse says she would do nothing differently. In fact, the experience has given her a new sense of purpose.
“I think I was so afraid of the process at first, and now that’s it’s over I look back and I think to myself, ‘What else can I do?’ Obviously, there’s blood donation, and I’ve thought about bone marrow as well but I’m not sure yet.”
On February 3, Peck and Highhouse joined other living donor pairs at a gala dinner hosted by the Gift of Life Donor Program at the Crown Hotel in King of Prussia.
“It was so inspiring, to talk to people who have been through what we did,” says Peck. “There were other mothers and daughters there, and we met one woman who had lived with a donated kidney for 30 years. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m 68. If I do that, I can live the rest of my life without the fear I used to have.’ It’s a great feeling.”