White walls of a hospital’s operating room surrounded Kelly Berwager as she laid on a table with a biopsy in progress. After a battery of blood work and tests, one involving a metal rod inserted in the back of her numb body, her doctor said something that made Berwager really stop and think: “Makes you question if you actually want to donate, doesn’t it?”
For a split second, “yes” almost escaped her lips, but she remembered that voice. The voice she heard one late night when she was praying for a church friend, Dena, to find a kidney donor. The voice said, “Well you have two,” and Berwager looked around in wonder.
“No, no – I am doing this for a reason,” Berwager responded to her doctor even in the midst of pain.
Dr. Kelly Berwager, an art education and visual arts professor at Troy University, initially wanted to donate her kidney to her friend Dena who had Lupus and was in need of a transplant.
Berwager started searching for more information about the donation process. She said the feeling of wanting to help and the thought of donating would not leave her.
In February, Berwager was pointed in the direction of UAB Medical Center. She went through full physical and mental examinations in order to be considered.
“They check you out from head to toe,” Berwager said. “By the time I donated it was like, you have seen it all!
“Take what you need. They make sure you understand the risk and really why you are doing this. And ‘what if it doesn’t work?’ ‘What if something happens to your recipient?’ You have to kind of be ready for anything.”
Berwager said she had to accept the fact that her recipient may not make it. If something happened to the receiver, she had to make sure she knew it was not her fault.
By June, Berwager found out she was not a match for Dena.
“I was devastated,” Berwager said. “I was in a Michael’s Craft Store, and I was like here’s the call, here we go.
“I am going to find out. And when she told me ‘no,’ I don’t even know how I got out of Michael’s. I was so distraught.”
After the tough news, “UAB Jill,” as Berwager refers to her donor caller, asked her if she would want to donate to someone else to help out the recipient pool.
Currently, there are nearly 100,000 people on the waiting list for a transplant, which could save their lives.
“For some reason, I couldn’t say ‘yes,’” Berwager said.
In July, Berwager found out that Dena found a donor.
Berwager said she felt guilty for not being the one to help her.
“I think once donors decide to do it, there’s that feeling of I’ve got to be the one,” Berwager said. “I’ve got to be the one that saves them.
“And if you’re not, then all the sudden you feel like you’ve let them down, which you can’t control that, but you feel like you’ve disappointed your friend or family member.”
“UAB Jill” gave Berwager another call. She told Berwager that she was prepared to
mark her off the list of possible donors, but Berwager responded she still need time to consider her decision.
Much to “UAB Jill’s” surprise, this final call was when Berwager made her decision to become a kidney donor.
“Nobody wanted me to do it,” Berwager said. “My mom was against it.
“My daughter was against it. My sister-in-law, who is a nurse, was against it.”
Her husband, Tom Berwager, laughed remembering his response about her decision.
“Well how was I supposed to argue with God?” Tom Berwager said. “If she thought God told her to do it, how could I tell her ‘no?’”
In October, Berwager got the call that she was cleared to donate.
The hospital worker on the call lightheartedly said, “If you’re giving away a body part, you get to pick the date.”
Berwager picked Dec. 11, the day finals were over for her classes.
“Surgery went great,” Berwager said. “I got to meet my recipient two days later.”
Her recipient, Mary, had hereditary polycystic kidney disease and lost her mom to the same illness.
Mary knew she had it, but did not have any problems until she was pregnant with her daughter. Mary’s condition slowly began to get worse and was in need of a living donor.
Mary decided to come to UAB Medical Center in late July, which was the same time Berwager got the first call about donating to a stranger.
Berwager believes she could not commit to the donation at the beginning of her journey because she was meant to donate to Mary. God was saving her for the right moment in time.
“I know God was in the mix the whole time,” Berwager said.
The two still stay in touch to this day.
“If I could do it again, I would, but I can’t,” Berwager said with a laugh.
Berwager has written her own book detailing her journey as an organ donor, called “Bridge Donor.”
Berwager brings awareness to organ donation by speaking life into her story through her book and through sharing her testimony at conferences and events.
April is National “Donate Life” month. By donating, people in need of life-saving organs could gain the chance to fully recover.
The organ donation waiting list continues to fill up with a recipient added every 10 minutes.