Retired critical care cardiac nurse Mary Bell donated one of her kidneys in 2017 to a man she had never previously met.
Bell shared her story with Rotary Club of Farragut during its regular noon meeting in Fox Den Country Club Wednesday, July 24.
Joining her were Linda Walker, retired University of Tennessee Medical Center’s Center for Transplant Services transplant nurse who assisted Bell when she donated her kidney, and Ashley Dennis, the current UT transplant nurse.
“There are over 300 on the waiting list,” Dennis said about those needing kidneys.
“I always was in favor of organ donation, always, It’s really the only comforting and good thing that can come out of a tragedy,” she added. “The only thing that comforts people who have lost someone is to know that by that death, other people have lived.”
While she has always been a blood donor, Bell said she had never thought of being a living organ donor until August 2017.
Bell, a Wears Valley resident then 66, remembered she was watching a TV newscast about Alcoa Elementary School teacher Betsy James, who needed a kidney.
“I just admired her being there and teaching these children and working and feeling bad,” Bell recalled. “I thought, ‘I’m retired. My kids are grown and gone. I’m a widow.’ I just couldn’t think of any reason why I couldn’t donate a kidney to Betsy.”
She remembered the more she thought and prayed about it, she thought not only could she — but she should.
That night Bell left a message with UT Medical Center’s transplant department. She heard from Walker the next day and did a phone interview.
“There are certain things for which you are immediately ineligible – cancer, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease,” Bell said.
Although she passed those obstacles, she later learned she was not the right blood type for James and could not be her donor.
“So, I said, ‘Who else?’” Bell said. “(Walker) was surprised that I said that … I already decided I would have the surgery.
“It didn’t really matter where (the kidney) went,” she added. “I trusted the committee and the process that chooses the recipient would be excellent.”
Bell started doing research.
“I learned that kidney donors statistically live longer than non-donors,” Bell said. “That’s really because they’re such a healthy population to start with.”
While she was warned there would be scars and pain, she was assured there would be pain medications and “my bikini days are long gone.”
Bell met with a social worker, chaplain and psychiatrist to be sure she was ready and knew what she was getting into.
“I was told, over and over, that I could change my mind at any moment – even the day before surgery,” she said. “I knew that I would not.
“I was never afraid; I never had any doubt that this was what I was supposed to do,” Bell added.
Through it all, she said, “It was a great adventure.”
Bell noted while she knows she had helped people as a critical care nurse, she did not know if she actually had saved anyone.
After more tests, the doctors took her right kidney.
“I have to say, my body never missed a beat,” Bell said. “From two kidneys to one, it never missed a beat.
“The surgery wasn’t bad,” she said. “The recovery wasn’t bad.”
While she was told her experience is not always typical, she said, “So, you have a spare to share.”
Bell, who had the surgery Oct 25, 2017, finally met the person. who received her kidney: Dr. Joe Bailey, 59, a Johnson City retired cardiologist, on Oct. 30.
“He was very frail,” she recalled of the recipient, remembering him telling her, “‘‘You’re such a Godsend.’”