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'The Right Thing to Do'
Employee Donates Kidney to Fellow NIH'er, Both Doing Well

By Bonnie Flock Kinney

On the Front Page...

The ad ran in the NIH Record for months: Employee Needs Organ Donation — An NIDDK employee with type A blood is in need of a kidney transplant. If there is anyone interested in being tested as a possible donor match that has either type A or O blood, call Wanda…


Wanda White, who works at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, began experiencing trouble with her kidneys about 3 years ago when complications of rheumatoid arthritis led to increased blood pressure and caused her to stop medication. As a result, she developed secondary amyloidosis, which attacked her kidneys.

Since the goal in treating secondary amyloidosis is to control the underlying disease, which in White's case was rheumatoid arthritis, she enrolled in a clinical study at NIAMS. Though her NIH treatment was critical in getting White in a more stable condition, she ultimately needed a kidney transplant. After ruling out potential family members and friends, she sought the kindness of strangers. Her life depended on it.

"People kept asking me, 'Do you really think that somebody who doesn't know you will give you a kidney?'" explained White. "But, my grandmother always told me that if you need something, ask, otherwise how will anyone ever know that you need help." So, she did.

NIDDK's Wanda White (l) got a kidney from NCI's Tammie Bell.

Encouraged by a guest on the Today Show, who also needed a kidney and placed an advertisement in a newspaper, White approached Record staff and asked to place an announcement in the newsletter to help make her need known to the NIH community.

After receiving several responses to the ad and the successful completion of extensive compatibility testing, White thought she had found her match. A donor was identified and surgery was scheduled.

White was ready to have her life back. Since early last year, she had been undergoing peritoneal dialysis. Already enduring a long commute and a full-time job, the addition of daily dialysis to her schedule left time for little else. "There really wasn't time for much else," said White. "I would literally get home, shower, hook up to the dialysis machines, and then it would be time to get up and come to work again."

With only 2 weeks until surgery, White was full of optimism and ready for the future when everything changed. She received a devastating call — her donor had opted out of surgery. White had no such option. Crushed, she took immediate action.

Both White and her nurse, Nancy Englar, contacted Tammie Bell, one of the first to respond to White's announcement. Though White and Bell had talked a year earlier, White had already secured a donor at that time, or so she thought. White hoped that Bell would still be interested and able to serve as her donor.

"About a year after that initial conversation with Wanda, I got another call," said Bell, who works at the National Cancer Institute. "I remember that we really had a connection when we first talked."

Bell immediately contacted White's nurse to discuss the situation and soon began the donor-screening process and compatibility testing. During this time, White knew that Bell was taking these steps, but they did not have direct contact. Aware of what happened with the last potential donor, Bell did not want to get White's hopes up only to have her disappointed again. She committed to each step of the screening and testing process while she discussed the decision with her family and extensively researched kidney donation.

Since the first time White and Bell talked, both women had endured great personal struggle and sadness. While White was fighting to save her life, Bell lost a life that was precious to her. "My 21-year-old daughter passed away a little over a year ago," said Bell. "Jessie was a profoundly wise and kind young woman. She touched many lives in her too-few years here on Earth.

"I wasn't quite sure about everything when I first called [about the ad]," said Bell "but when Wanda called me again, I knew it was the right thing to do for her and that it also had a special purpose for me. I wanted to do something to honor Jessie's life and I felt the best way to honor her was by honoring our living."

Bell met all the donor requirements and discussed potential surgery dates with her supervisor, Jim Dickens, who she said "was supportive of me leaving frequently to go to the Clinical Center for various tests week after week.

"When I found out I was a match and had decided to donate my kidney, I approached him asking when the most convenient time would be for me to take off for the surgery and recovery," explained Bell. His response was, "Doesn't she need the kidney now?"

Bell then scheduled the surgery date with White's nurse and White was notified of the good news. They finally met face-to-face a week before the operation. "I felt like she was my best friend when I hugged her," said White of the emotional meeting. "Of all the lives she could have saved, it was incredible that she was donating to me."

After experiencing her previous disappointment, White was particularly nervous the day of surgery. "I was just worried that she wouldn't be there," said White. "But, when I arrived at the Clinical Center and walked through the doors, she was right there."

Bell also remembers that December morning. "When Wanda and her husband first arrived, he said to me, 'Thank you for giving me my wife back' and hugged me," she said.

Both White and Bell were bravely positive about the outcome of the surgery. "Neither of us entertained the idea that it wouldn't work," said Bell. "It didn't even enter our minds," they agreed.

The surgical procedure took place in adjacent operating suites at the Clinical Center, and lasted several hours. Prime members of the operating team were three physicians from NIDDK's Transplant Branch — Dr. Allan D. Kirk, branch chief; Dr. Douglas A. Hale, transplant surgeon; and Dr. Roslyn B. Mannon, medical director of transplantation. Also on the team was Dr. S. John Swanson, chief of the organ transplant service and chief of the Renal-Pancreas Transplantation Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center's surgery department.

Despite difficult recoveries, the operations proved successful and White and Bell are now both back at work, where, after all this time, they work in the same building (Bldg. 31), just a few floors apart. "I feel great and I am very glad to be back at work," said White. "I was very lucky to have had Tammie step up for me like she did. I'm glad we're in the same building. I think about her every day."

"Tammie's goodness has given Wanda and I a new life with a bright future," said White's husband, James. "I care for Tammie as if she was my very own sister. She will forever be a part of our family."

Bell is happy with her decision and glad she was able to serve as White's donor. "I donated my kidney because it was the right thing to do and because I could," she said. "It's a small price to pay to save a life. It's hard to do, but it's the right thing to do."

"Tammie is an amazing person," said her sister Shannon Bell, who also works at NCI. "She did a ton of research so she and us, her family, knew her donation was a safe decision, in addition to being the most beautiful gift one human being can give another — a new life!"

Both White and Bell commended the professional and supportive nature of the doctors, nurses and other Clinical Center staff members who helped them through this process. "I felt very supported here at NIH," said Bell. "Overall, it has been a really positive process and experience.

"We all should have such admiration for people who are struggling with cancer, heart disease and other illnesses," said Bell. "We take things for granted, simple things like just being able to get up in the morning. I just experienced a rough month [in recovery], but it's not short-term for many of these patients fighting life-threatening illnesses. Those are the people we should be inspired by."

A Few Words from Wanda White

I would like to thank the employees and senior level management of NIDDK for their support in my time of need. Everyone from my supervisor, the budget officer, director's office, executive officer and staff members have been incredibly supportive in this situation.

I would also like the NIH community to know that I am not the only one who needs a kidney here at the NIH. I know of others who work here or who have some connection to the NIH who are in need. I hope that other people will step up and help out like Tammie did.

Charlie Zellers, my budget officer, suggested that I contact the arthritis institute about my arthritis condition and that actually started the ball rolling. I had planned to have my transplant at Georgetown University Medical Center. However, when I decided to put the ad in the NIH Record, I thought it might be to my advantage to have my surgery here at the NIH. I figured that if I did get a donor at NIH, it would be easier for everyone concerned if we could do everything here. Nancy [Englar], my nurse, arranged to have my information transferred from Georgetown to NIH. NIH is without a doubt the best place to have a transplant, because the transplant team takes its time and gets everything right before they send you home. Because NIH isn't concerned with making a profit, they can afford to keep you here until everything is the way it should be.

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