‘The best present ever’: The donation of a kidney

Children at Belton’s Gladden Elementary School had already learned about tolerance, self-discipline, responsibility, integrity and respect as part of their monthly character education lessons.

Now teacher Elizabeth Hart is teaching them a trifecta of character lessons — caring, compassion and courage.

Students learned last week that Hart, a special education teacher, would donate one of her kidneys to the husband of fellow teacher Michelle Lewis.

Principal Justin Mefferd, who had known about Hart’s plan for weeks, called students and staff together Thursday to make the announcement.

“Mrs. Lewis has a husband named Mr. Lewis, or some of you may know him by Damon,” Mefferd said. “Well, Mr. Lewis has a kidney that isn’t quite working right. He becomes very sick when this happens, and he’s in need of a new kidney.

“Mrs. Hart cares so much about others that she is willing to give up one of her own kidneys to help out her friend, Mr. Lewis.”

The school gymnasium, filled with kindergartners through fourth-graders, erupted in applause and cheers. For the first time since making the decision, Hart cried.

Today she will undergo two to three hours of surgery at KU Hospital as doctors remove the kidney. She will be in one operating room, while doctors in another room prepare Damon Lewis.

“It’s a big deal for someone to donate a kidney,” said University of Kansas Hospital transplant surgeon Sean Kumer. “But the chances of having something bad happen to the donor are pretty small.”

Hart, a 50-year-old marathon runner, isn’t frightened. Her dad was an emergency room doctor, she said, so she’s used to the idea.

“I’m just blessed to be able to do this,” she said.

Damon Lewis, 42, an insurance claims agent, is in renal failure and on dialysis three times a week. His kidneys haven’t been breaking down proteins since 2000.

He and his wife, who have three children, including two at Gladden, had pretty much exhausted their options. None of their family members who’d been tested was a match. Michelle Lewis had decided that getting her hopes up again was pointless.

But Gladden is a close-knit school, and all the staff there knew that Michelle Lewis’ husband needed a donor.

This summer Hart, in her third year teaching at Gladden, and Lewis, a third-grade teacher at Gladden for 15 years, were in the same book study group. They saw each other once a week and shared family updates. Damon Lewis wasn’t getting better. Still no donor.

Finding a living donor gives the person facing kidney failure the best chances. That’s because a living kidney graft tends to survive three to five years longer, Kumer said.

There’s only a 1-in-25,000 chance that a perfect living donor who’s not a relative will emerge. The match doesn’t have to be perfect, Kumer said, “but we are pretty picky about it.”

Doctors look at blood type and the potential donor’s antibodies, among other things.

“I thought that when his brother was being tested, that would be a match,” said Hart, a divorced mother of two grown children and one 11-year-old. “When it wasn’t ... you could see the pain on her face. That led me to look deep in my own heart. I asked her for the contact information.”

The testing, which she began in June, went on for months, Hart said.

In August she learned she was a match to donate a kidney to Damon Lewis, whom she’d never met.

“Who would have thought the match would be someone who happens to be a teacher in the same school?” Mefferd said.

Hart’s children support her decision to be a living donor.

“They are very proud, but they are also a little nervous about the surgery,” she said. “They understand, though, that if it were possibly someone in our family, we would hope that someone would step up.”

A few days after Hart and the Lewises learned of the match, Michelle Lewis was preparing for the start of the school year when Hart poked her head into her colleague’s classroom.

Neither spoke.

“I didn’t know what to say to her,” Hart said. “We’re colleagues, not close friends. I don’t think she knew what to say to me either. We hugged.”

The first time Hart met Damon Lewis, “it was awkward,” she said. Hart wasn’t sure he knew she was the woman who would be donating her kidney. It was a school function, and his kids were with him. The two made eye contact and small talk. Nothing memorable.

Hart, who is Catholic, said she’s not all that religious, but “I’m very spiritual. I feel like I was just put in the right place at the right time. They are a wonderful family.

“When you look at another family going through so much, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why can’t I help?’ I’m glad I’m able to help. I’m glad Damon will be able to see his three kids grow up.”

Damon Lewis is a little nervous about today’s surgery, his wife said. She’s looking forward to celebrating his birthday with him on Monday. Several days ago she asked him what he wanted.

“He said he’s already gotten the best present ever,” Michelle Lewis said. “We know we are very lucky. We know we could have had to wait so much longer.”