Recently we found out that one of our U.S. Engineering teammates, Thomas Kepka, Director of Marketing, was giving one of his kidneys to a friend. That’s kind of a big deal.
Organ donation is something most of us think about when we’re renewing our driver’s license, something abstract that happens after we pass on. But living organ donors comprise 4 out every 10 organ donations. About 6,000 living organ donations occur annually, helping those who need a kidney, part of a liver, lungs and other vital organs. (source)
And this year one of our own was among the 6,000. We sat down (virtually) with Thomas to talk with him about his experience and why he was inclined to part with a kidney.
First of all, how are you feeling?
The surgery was August 3, so today, we’re about a month out. Overall, I’m feeling fine. There’s a good-sized incision that allowed the surgeon to take the kidney without damaging it, and that’s still not fully healed, but really the pain has been manageable.
What I underestimated—even though I was warned—was the fatigue. I tire easily, and keeping focus can be a struggle. It seems like I’m forgetting what I was about to say at least once a day. But, as it was explained to me, it’s not a small surgery, and my kidney function was cut in half in an instant.
Based on my “numbers,” I technically have temporary, self-induced kidney disease. It takes some time for the body to recalibrate, but that said, I can already tell that I’m getting there. I’m slowly feeling more like myself each week.
How did the idea of donating one of your kidneys come about?
The first time I had considered donating a kidney was on a plane. I was flying Southwest, like I used to do frequently going back and forth between Kansas City and Denver for work. I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Make Me a Match.” It described how Al Roth won the Nobel prize for economics by designing a matchmaking market for kidney donation. This was in 2015, and at the time, I told myself that I would be open to donating my kidney. I wasn’t going “altruistic,” which is what they call someone who donates to a stranger. I decided to save mine in case someone I knew developed a need.
Actually, I believe my first reaction was that I would save my kidney for a close family friend. My memory is a little fuzzy on this detail, but I believe we had heard that my friend and her family had a history of kidney disease, and I thought I would feel horrible if I gave a kidney away only to find out a dear friend needed one. Unfortunately, by 2019, the family did have a need. Actually, two from the family went on the kidney donor list, and I was a match for one of them.
This is major surgery with plenty of risk—what was it that caused you to accept the risk and go through with this?
First of all, risk is relative. Everything has risk. And risk is balanced against the return one receives by taking that risk. In this case, a mother with three young children gets to lead a more normal life, hopefully for many years to come. You look at those children and that family, and for me, that equation becomes easy to solve. I envision the joy on Val’s face as she’s watching her youngest graduate high school. That joy makes it worth it to me.
I was not super concerned about the surgery itself. It’s not a small operation, but I had confidence in today’s medical advancements and in the professionals at the University of Kansas Health System. The question was more about the long term. Would I have to change my lifestyle? Would I have problems down the road?
My lifestyle won’t change, but recent studies do show there is an increased risk for end-stage renal disease (ESRD) if you donate a kidney—you’re going from a 0.3% to a 3% chance. So, I looked at it as I still have a 97% chance of not getting ESRD. Those numbers might be off a little, but that’s close, and for me a 97% chance of being fine is good enough for me to be able to serve another.
How long were you in the hospital?
I went in for surgery on a Monday, and I was home on Wednesday. They have you up and walking the day after surgery, and if you can pass just a few tests to prove everything is working as it should, they let you go home. And a quick shout out to the nurses there. They are awesome.
How is your friend, the recipient, doing? What are next steps for her?
It’s been a much more difficult experience for Val, who did have to endure some complications from the surgery. However, the kidney itself has been functioning great, and it appears that she’s turned a corner in dealing with the other issues as well.
It’s actually quite amazing how quickly a new kidney starts to work. You can read about these experiences, but it’s almost like flipping a switch. It’s funny, when you look at the numbers, her kidney function was actually better than mine after the surgery—though mine is bouncing back admirably.
And receiving a new kidney is not the end of the story for any recipient. They all have to monitor it and take medications for the rest of their lives.
What are some things that helped you get through this process?
I have been incredibly blessed. First off, I had the opportunity and capacity to do something like this, and I’m so thankful that I was a match. Second, I have such a wonderful support system around me. My family—and my wife in particular—has encouraged me and embraced the donation.
U.S. Engineering has been amazingly supportive as well. When you completely erase one potential burden from your mind, the process becomes so much easier, and that’s what U.S. Engineering did for me. I initially worried about how this would affect our team and the people we support within the company, but as I shared my plans, it became abundantly clear that work was never going to be an issue. That was a load off.
Being in the right place mentally is most of the battle. After that, you’re dealing with some discomfort and some fatigue, but it’s all completely manageable. And again, look at those kids! Bringing a little bit of joy to someone else makes it all worth it.
What did this experience teach you about yourself?
In subtle ways, it changes your perspective and priorities, at least in the short term. Before the surgery, I shared a pretty emotional story with the organization as I was announcing that I would be away from work for a while. It’s an emotional process, and I wasn’t planning to get so in touch with that side of me. As I shared with the company, I remembered how to cry.
In donating an organ, you’re leaving a legacy of selfless giving. You literally gave a part of yourself to someone else. After such a physically and psychologically demanding act, how do you consider the idea of “leaving a legacy” going forward?
This is such a relevant question because U.S. Engineering is constantly talking about leaving a legacy. But as individuals, I don’t think we need to put so much pressure on the idea of leaving a legacy. People can do “big” things, but the little things have potential to change lives as well. Especially in today’s climate of 2020, being kind to one another isn’t a bad place to start. One of my favorite TED Talks is “Everyday leadership” by Drew Dudley. He shares a story that illustrates the impact you can have on another person without even realizing it. Take six minutes and watch that talk.
What should people know about organ donation?
Organ donation is not going to be for everyone, but it does save lives. You can save a life. I strongly encourage people to be a donor, even if you decide against living organ donation.
And if you do decide to declare yourself an organ donor on your driver’s license, talk to your family about it and let them know your wishes. You might consider yourself an organ donor, but when you die, your living relatives will need to confirm the donation. A loving parent or spouse can veto a donation, which is understandable considering the highly emotional state they’ll likely be in. Let them know ahead of time your intention is to save a life once that time comes.
What else about your experience would like us to know?
I mentioned my wife Jesse before, but I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciate her. Going through this is not a decision made by an individual; this is a team decision. If she wasn’t so supportive and encouraging, I would have passed on the donation. We talked about what this would mean for us, both in the short term and the long. She made both the decision and the recovery so much easier. Again, I’m incredibly blessed.
You can read more about Thomas’s experience, including the moment he learned he was a match, in a post he composed on his Facebook page.
Thomas Kepka is Director of Marketing at U.S. Engineering Company Holdings. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he holds an M.B.A. from the University of Missouri Kansas City. Besides donating organs, Thomas can often be found cycling, drinking high-quality coffee or watching his two sons play sports.