Man donates kidney to store cashier–a story of faith, courage and hope

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

Easter is a time to celebrate new life, a rebirth of hope. For two families in Evanston, Ill., the message has become especially meaningful in a personal way. It is a story of faith, courage and hope in a way that transcends differences and takes friendship to a whole new level.

Dan Coyne is a regular shopper at a Jewel-Osco grocery store in Evanston, and Myra de la Vega, with her pleasant smile and friendly manner, was his favorite cashier. But one day, he noticed she didn’t look well at all, and he inquired if she was all right. That’s when he found out how desperate her situation was.

In an exclusive interview with The Rock River Times, Coyne told us: “I noticed that Myra was looking very sick—deathly, with dark circles about her eyes. I’ve learned a lot about her in the last few months. What I learned at the time…she and her family really thought she was going to die. She went from 105 pounds to 80 pounds. She continued to work full time. She had kidney failure, and she was not in good shape. But she told me it was her faith that kept her going, and she wanted her two children to have some chance at life and keep going through high school.”

Myra de la Vega told Coyne that she had to undergo dialysis every night for eight hours, which left her feeling weak and tired. Yet, she did her best to keep going to work and serving the public.

Coyne said: “For me as a customer,… Myra always struck me as the type of employee you can’t educate or train. Anybody who goes through her line, she looks at you and says hello. When I found out that she was so sick, I told her that my wife and I always have a pillow prayer at night, and we would put her in our prayers. After a couple months, I felt led through my own prayer time that I should offer her a kidney. I had donated blood because I’m an O-negative—universal donor blood type, so I know a little bit about donations. But in offering that to Myra, she thought about it but was thinking her sister might be the donor.

“I saw her again at the store and reminded her of this possibility.” Coyne continued. “She took my name and number and called me back. She said, ‘it’s nice of you to offer, but I’m Filipino, and in our culture, we would rather have our family [do this.]’ At the time, they were working on approving her sister’s visa papers. They eventually did come over, and when I asked her about it, she told me they were going through the hospital tests to see if it would match. About nine months ago, I went through her line, assuming I would hear some good news that she got the kidney, but the tears came back to her eyes, and she said, ‘My sister’s heart was too bad, and the tissues weren’t a good match.’ I looked her straight in the eyes and said, ‘My offer is still serious. If you want me to call you, I will.’ [Later] I went to the store with my wife so she could meet my wife and would know it was legitimate. She gave me the phone number of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. They put me through about three months of different tests…  I work in construction. About a month ago, while up on a ladder, I got a call from the hospital, and I almost fell off the ladder.

“They said, ‘Dan, it’s a match!’ I was just overwhelmed with joy,” Coyne said. “They told me that the policy is to give the donor the honor of notifying the recipient. My wife and I have been married 27 years, and we have two children of elementary [school] age. We always have family meetings every Sunday over ice cream, and everybody in the family can give their opinion, and we talk about all the family stuff. This was a new subject. We put that on the table and asked, ‘what should we do?’ My children didn’t hesitate. They said, ‘Dad, do it!’ My wife, who is an OB/GYN nurse practitioner, was a bit more cautious, and she looked into the research and found out that this is a safe procedure, and she is 100 percent behind it. So the kids wanted to go through the checkout line. She had never met them before. They went through the line, and they gave her this card inviting Myra to join their dad at the hospital at the kidney transplant office on March 26. She couldn’t figure out what these kids were talking about. So I came out of hiding and held her hand and [told her], ‘Just call me if you want my kidney.’

“She cried. It was just a beautiful thing,” Coyne recalled. “In the month since then, Myra has really accepted our family; she is part of our family. It is an honor to know her; she is a great person. She’s a new immigrant who came here 14 years ago, legally, with her two young children. In the future, she wanted to be a mom to her kids so they could have a better life. She worked in the factory at night and then came back to care for her kids during the day. She was waiting for her husband’s paperwork to come through legally. It finally came through, but he had a horrible motorcycle accident, and he ended up permanently disfigured. Half of his body is paralyzed, and he has no capacity to understand marriage or family. His parents are caring for him… She spent all these years working hard. Her kids now are in high school. They are honor students in honors classes. She told me that it was during these dark times when she was feeling so sad, she just kept praying to God to help get the kids through high school.”

Dan Coyne’s background

Coyne is a Mennonite who went to Goshen College, a liberal arts institution in Goshen, Ind. He thinks it is noteworthy that in their emblems and letterhead, there is a saying that they want all their graduates to know: “Culture for Service.” He says: “The whole point behind your education is to serve the world… I just believe you treat people with respect regardless of what that person is, whether of a different culture or race, economic situation—they are human beings, and that is how we treat each other, with respect.”

About Myra, he says: “She has become my hero. All I had to do was lie down and fall asleep. The recovery is pretty darn easy. I did 20 laps around the hospital floor after surgery. This morning [March 30] my friend and I went walking along Lake Michigan for 2-1/2 hours.”

He expressed his hopes for the future: “I hope people will consider the possibility of the living kidney donor program. I do know that  30 years of longitudinal studies from the American Medical Association have shown that the living kidney donor can live just as long or longer as the regular person who hasn’t had a kidney taken out. For a couple days of discomfort, to give somebody else life, in my opinion, is so worth it because of what I’ve gotten back from learning about her life. She has another 30 years to live—is a phenomenal gift to me. I learned that the cadaver organ lasts on the average five years, but the living kidney lasts 30. Think about the difference.

“Another phenomenal thing I’ve learned is that for the dialysis patient like Myra, it costs $40,000 a month—that’s half a million a year. The average dialysis patient is on dialysis for five years before they get an organ. That’s $2-1/2 to 3 million to keep that person alive.”

Myra’s new life

Myra de la Vega also talked to The Rock River Times Monday, April 5.

TRRT: How did you manage to keep a regular schedule of dialysis while putting in a full work day every day?

Myra de la Vega: “It was hard. I just had to do it because it kept me alive. I was a mom. I don’t know how I did it, but I was able to do it.”

TRRT: How much different is it now that you have a new kidney?

Myra de la Vega: “I have energy—that’s really amazing. The difference is, I can feel my energy. I haven’t felt that experience of energy since I got the diagnosis four years ago. I stayed on dialysis for 18 months. I can eat now. I have a lot of appetite. The food tastes a lot better, and I can sleep better. I can lie flat on my bed because before the transplant, my tummy was always full, and I had to sit in a recliner while doing the dialysis. For 18 months, I was in a recliner. I got used to it, but I never do it now. It’s incredible. It’s like a new life!”

TRRT: Have you kept in touch with Dan Coyne, the donor?

“Yes! We were together yesterday for Easter, and also we had a live interview on Good Morning America yesterday [Easter Sunday]. We always call each other, and whenever we have  medical appointments, we are together.”

National organ donation statistics

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 84,000 people across the nation suffering from kidney failure are waiting for transplants. Most recipients get a transplant from someone who died when their family agrees to donate the organs. The Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network in Itasca, Ill., offers the following statistics:

→ More than 105,000 are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants nationwide.

→ More than 4,700 are waiting in Illinois.

→ More than 1,000 are waiting in Indiana.

→ Every 11 minutes, a new person is added to the national waiting list.

→ An average of 18 people die each day while waiting.

→ One in 20 Americans will need some type of medical tissue transplant during their lifetime.

Incompatible donors join to help others

Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Coyne and de la Vega had their surgery, is recognized as one of the top U.S. living donor transplant centers.

In a feature story in the Chicago Sun-Times, three Illinois residents who were medically incompatible to donate an organ to their relatives became part of an exchange that benefits all participants. Three kidney donors, Deon McConnell, Kathy Reynolds and Robert Stone, were assured that their relatives would receive organs from other participants in the exchange. After the March 11 exchange, the donors got to meet the three recipients—Seth McConnell, Patrick Reynolds and John Stone.

Dr. John Friedewald, transplant nephrologist at Northwestern, is chairman of the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network/United Network for Organ Sharing Committee for Kidney Paired Donations. He says the goal is to establish a system that offers kidney-paired donations on a national level. This would ensure a larger pool of pairs who could be entered into a computer matching system that would result in more successful kidney transplants. Friedewald hopes to have a pilot national program started this year.

From the April 14-20, 2010 issue

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