Kidney donor answers man’s prayer

Published: January 4, 2007 | 5241st good news item since 2003

Woman responds to church bulletin.

By last summer, Emmet Littleton of Oxnard had been undergoing dialysis for more than two years, hitched to a machine three days a week, four hours a day, to filter toxins from his blood.

The former bodybuilder, motivational speaker and devout Christian was hurting. He had run over grown men as a stand-out football player in high school and college, but now, at age 62, strapped to a machine, his life felt like it was on hold.

Suffering from kidney failure and hypertension, he needed a new kidney, and no one in his family could provide an acceptable match. His son had high blood pressure. So did his brother and wife.

Six times, friends or acquaintances had said they would donate a kidney, only to later change their minds or fail to qualify, dashing his hopes.

“At church, I stopped praying for a new kidney,” Littleton said. “I prayed for endurance.”

Pati Foster of Ventura was attending the same church but didn’t know Littleton. When Foster, a petite kindergarten teacher, read about his condition in a church bulletin, she knew immediately what had to be done. Six months later, on Dec. 20, Littleton received one of her kidneys.

“It felt like a lightning bolt from heaven came into my heart,” Foster, 49, said of her reaction upon reading of Littleton’s search for a donor. “His life was on the line.”

Today, the need for kidney donations, whether from the deceased or living, is as great as ever.

More than 60,000 people in the United States are waiting for kidney transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. The list grows by nearly 5,000 patients a year.

Fewer than 17,000 kidneys are transplanted annually, and most come from accident or stroke victims or living relatives.

About 1,500 a year come from unrelated donors like Foster, who agreed to donate despite the grave concerns of her parents and husband.

Living kidney donations are emerging as the preferred method because the quality of the organ tends to be superior to those from the deceased, and the waiting time for a transplant can be significantly reduced. In Littleton’s case, he was looking at seven more years of waiting before Foster emerged.

Advancements in medicine have progressed to where donors and recipients don’t have to be as closely matched to achieve excellent results, Dr. Gabriel Danovitch said. He is medical director of the kidney transplantation program at UCLA Medical Center, where Littleton’s transplant was among about 300 performed there last year.

People who want to donate to someone they don’t know rarely prove to be good candidates, Danovitch said. Many turn out to be depressed, are looking for meaning in their lives or think that there is some financial gain in it, he said.

Every potential donor at UCLA goes through an in-depth health assessment to make sure their bodies and minds are prepared for major surgery and the two- to six-week recovery.

Donating an organ can be intimidating, which is why the process is designed to protect the interests of the donor as much as the recipient.

“The donor needs to know we are on his or her side,” Danovitch said. “It’s not a process of sacrifice. You are a patient, too. You will have a doctor and a nurse who will be your advocates.”

On Wednesday, Littleton walked 4.5 miles, his farthest distance since the surgery.

“I feel like a new man,” he said, beaming. He called Foster a “courageous angel” and praised his doctors, nurses and his wife of 30 years, Sheralyn.

Although some in need of a transplant have turned to the Internet to scour for possible donors, Littleton, a former teacher who is now retired, never considered going outside his “church family” at Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura.

He now has to swallow nearly 30 pills, mostly anti-rejection medication so that his body accepts Foster’s kidney, but it’s a welcome reprieve from his exhausting days stuck in a recliner at a Ventura dialysis center.

“With this kidney, I can do so many new things,” said Littleton, who lost both his father and sister to complications from diabetes and was diagnosed with hypertension in his late 20s.

He’s contacted the Kidney Foundation about being a spokesman. He wants to work with youth and educate others, specifically blacks like himself, about how high blood pressure and diabetes can affect their lives and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Two weeks after the laparoscopic surgery, Foster is up and walking and off pain pills. She has a checkup scheduled Friday and hopes to be cleared by her doctor to return to her classroom at Ventura County Christian School on Monday. If she’s not ready, the church has stepped in, raising several thousands dollars to cover any lost time from work.

She will forever have a 3-inch scar on her abdomen, but it’s a small price to help someone in need, she said. Studies have long shown that people can lead a normal life with only one of their two kidneys.

“I would do it again,” she said. “I would give away my other kidney if I could live without it.”

Foster said her faith motivated her to donate. It just seemed that if she had the power to help somebody with such goodness in their heart, she should. Her children supported her decision from the start.

“A lot of people tried to talk me out of it,” she said. “But donating a kidney doesn’t cut any time off your life at all. I think it adds to it, because you gave.”

Published in Faith, Prayer
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