A kidney donation, with an assist from above

    Joanne Smith

    Joanne Smith

    Did a religious epiphany save Terry Sukeena’s life?

    When he was 46 years old, Terry Sukeena had the first major health scare of his life.

    “I passed a little blood in my urine, you know, not a lot, but enough that I went to the doctor,” says Sukeena, who worked as a lab technician for DuPont at the time.

    A round of ultrasounds and CT scans revealed two problems. The first “was a very large tumor, a 15-cm tumor, that was consuming the kidney.”

    And the second issue was that Sukeena didn’t have a second kidney.

    “It was just my luck that I was born without it. And I never knew it, my whole life, here I thought I had two kidneys,” he says.

    It’s rare, though not unheard of, to be born missing a kidney. Most people with this condition go on to lead normal lives, but for Sukeena, it turns out to be a genuinely bad break because the cancer attacking his single kidney was too large to treat, and the organ couldn’t be saved. With no kidneys, he would have no way to remove waste and fluid from his blood.

    “It was, like, the end of May, 2009 when I found this out, and by the beginning of July, I had my kidney removed, and I started dialysis.”

    Post-surgery, Sukeena would go to the Fresenius Medical Care facility in Newark, Delaware for treatment. Three days a week, four hours per session, he found himself confined to a dialysis chair.

    “It is nerve-racking, you are getting hooked up to the machine. It is a serious thing, you got blood coming out of your body, running through a filter to get clean, it goes back in. So there’s a lot of things that can go wrong,” he says.

    After a few months of regular trips to the clinic, Sukeena opted to install a portable dialysis unit in his bedroom. Nurses trained him and his wife, Pam, how to perform daily treatments, and while this was an easier schedule, it wasn’t exactly the ideal lifestyle, especially as it dragged into the fourth and then fifth year of waiting for an organ donation.

    “It can get you down, but I tried to stay positive, and did what my doctors and nurses told me,” recalls Sukeena. “And I just tried to stay as healthy as I possibly could because one day that was my goal, was to get a kidney transplant.”

    An unmistakable sign?

    The Fresenius Medical Care building where Sukeena goes for appointments is tucked into a row of corporate offices off of a four-lane road. Upstairs in a light-filled office, patients are bound to see Joanne Smith buzzing around.

    “What I love about dialysis is that you get to see these patients over and over again, they become part of your family,” says Smith, a 56-year-old nurse who helps run in-home services. “Other fields of nursing, you may see a patient once a year, or even labor and delivery, for a couple of days. But with dialysis, you are pretty much there for the life of the patient.”

    As part of her job, Smith works closely with families as they wait for a kidney transplant. She’s seen over her 20-plus years just how life-changing the procedure is, not just for the recipient, but for the donor, too.

    “I kind of started putting it out to my family that I’m going to give someone a kidney, and they were like, no you’re not…and I talked to my team, and they said the same thing.”

    But despite that skepticism, she couldn’t shake the idea. Smith just doesn’t know who to select, and the answer would come when she wasn’t expecting it.

    “So, I was standing in line in church, waiting for communion, and Terry’s name, as clear as day, came into my head. I’ll never forget it, I knew exactly where I was standing, and I knew exactly what it meant. I knew that it meant for me to….give him a kidney.”

    Smith unequivocally believes this vision came from God. She’s a devout Methodist, and says she tries to follow a spiritual path. So when this sign—this presence—arrived, she felt she couldn’t ignore it.

    One possible roadblock here, however, was potential ethical concerns over a nurse or doctor making a donation to a patient. There’s supposed to be a line between receiving compassion from a caregiver, and a potential clouding of judgment, if the relationship is too close.

    For Smith and Sukeena, though, this wasn’t a Florence Nightingale ‘she’s falling for him’ kind of thing. This wasn’t even about Sukeena, she says, since she regarded him only as another one of her dozens of patients. The vision, and her desire to donate a kidney to him, were squarely about answering a message from her higher power.

    And because he (lower-case ‘he’) wasn’t asking Smith for the kidney, her supervisors and the transplant doctors approved the donation.

    No good deed

    In June, 2015, Smith called Sukeena to ask if she could stop by his home for a visit.

    After she arrived, Sukeena joked that he hadn’t recognized the phone number, and hoped it was a call from the transplant team. “Which was the perfect opening for me,” says Smith.

    For Terry and his wife, Pam, the offer from someone who was a friendly acquaintance at best was hard to believe.

    “When somebody tells you that, it is unbelievable. I was just in a state of shock,” says Terry.

    Immediately, he pushed back with concerns about her health and her family. It reached the point where Smith thought he may reject her offer.

    “So I said to him, Terry, I’m giving somebody a kidney, and I am thinking that it needs to be you, so you can take it or you can leave it, but I’m doing it,” says Smith.

    A week later, Sukeena calls her back and agrees to the transplant. But not everyone was on board.

    “I told my husband that I was going to do this, and he told me I wasn’t,” says Smith. “My sisters and my daughters were there supporting me, and he was having negative comments, and not being on board with the whole process, so I told him he needed to leave. And he did.”

    Smith and her husband decided to separate, not just over transplant, she says, but it was the final straw in a strained relationship.

    “God beats my husband, hands down. God really had a big part of this. And I knew what I was supposed to do, and at the end of the day, that’s who I have to answer to.”

    In August, 2015, the transplant goes off without a hitch. After six years of living on dialysis, Sukeena is free from the tubes and cords that were keeping him alive.

    “You know, words just don’t do it justice. I mean, I can’t thank her enough just with words. She gave me part of her body so that more or less I could live,” says Sukeena.

    Smith’s life was back to normal again within a few weeks, and she quips that she was no doubt looking pretty good in God’s book.

    “I feel like I have my ticket now. So long as I behave myself for the rest of my life, I’m pretty much good to go,” says Smith.

    Curiously, this gift to a total stranger may not have impacted her time here on Earth much, either. Her husband, who came to visit her the day of the surgery, is now back in the picture for Smith. Whatever the disconnect over the transplant was, it seems to be behind them, and they’re giving the relationship another shot, albeit just dating for the time being.

    “It’s great. It is not for everybody, but it is working great for us.”

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