|Maureen “Reenie” Harris
Photography: (top and middle) Scott Weersing/Donate Life
As I approached my 70th birthday, I made a decision to write a brand new and altogether different chapter for my life. Never could I have imagined the story that would then unfold.
My daughter Natasha had for some time been considering the possibility of donating a kidney altruistically — giving one of her organs to a complete stranger. She became interested in the idea after hearing of someone who had donated a kidney to a relative, and the seed of an idea that had been planted years before began to grow.
I had never heard of such a thing. As Natasha went through the protocol to become a donor, reaching out to UCLA and learning about the kidney-exchange program and starting a chain of donations, she shared her wish to make this gift with her family and close friends. Some were, understandably, concerned for her well-being, but all were supportive of her decision to go forward. Her desire and commitment to help a total stranger in this way was incredible, and I was intrigued.
Once she was put into the exchange-program system, a match was found relatively quickly, and the surgery was scheduled for a day in June 2012. I bought a plane ticket to come to Los Angeles to help her during her recovery. Though her first match fell through — we were spending time together on Catalina a few days before the scheduled surgery when she received a call that the recipient had fallen ill — a second match was made in short order.
As I sat in the waiting room at UCLA on the day of the operation, a remarkable thing happened. I overheard a family talking about kidneys. I asked if they had someone having kidney surgery. Yes, they responded, their 26-year-old son was receiving a kidney from a 39-year-old female angel. When I told them my daughter was donating a kidney, we all jumped up and hugged and cried. I was so moved by the power of my own daughter making this remarkable gift and by the joy and gratitude of this family upon receiving such a life-giving blessing that I decided then and there to join Natasha and to also become a living donor.
In January of 2013, I began the process at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey. By this time, I was completely committed to donating one of my kidneys. Now came the tests to determine whether or not I was healthy enough to do so. Waiting for the results from each test felt like torture, but a few months later, I was deemed healthy, and I was placed on the National Kidney Registry.
On May 13, 2013 — at the age of 70 years old — my left kidney was successfully removed. Immediately, it was packed in ice and taken to a waiting plane. After a flight of some 3,000 miles, my kidney arrived, and was transplanted into a 64-year-old man — at UCLA! Natasha’s kidney had been scheduled to go to another hospital, but it stayed at UCLA. My kidney, too, was supposed to go to another hospital, but it also went to UCLA. Amazing.
My recovery has been uneventful. Since my surgery, I have gone paintballing with my grandchildren and skydiving, just to mention a couple activities in which I have been an eager and active participant. But I felt there was something incomplete in my connection with organ donations. So I began to attend training to become a volunteer with the New Jersey Sharing Network, which is dedicated to educating the public about the need for organ donation. Sharing my story and speaking about the need for organ donations are my way of helping to possibly save a life. If Natasha hadn’t done her research and shared it with me, I never would have known about the dire need for organ donations. It just takes one voice to bring awareness.
Many have asked me why I donated a kidney at 70 years of age to a stranger. My life has been full with family, my five children and grandchildren, careers, school and travel, I tell them. I’ve enjoyed good health and keen awareness. My answer when asked why I donated is, “Why not!”
Maureen “Reenie” Harris (left) lives in New Jersey. At the age of 70, she became the oldest-living-kidney donor in the United States. Her daughter Natasha Kruse (right) is a clinical psychologist in Southern California.
Throughout my life, I’ve been given many opportunities to connect with people in ways I never could have imagined. The heartfelt connections in each case have been unexpected gifts. In December of 2014, I received another such gift: I met my recipient. About 15 months after the transplant, I wrote a note to him via Saint Barnabas and UCLA, mentioned I would be in California to walk with the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade, and I included my phone number in case he felt comfortable enough to contact me. He called on a Sunday afternoon several weeks later. Our conversation was one of the most overwhelming few minutes of my life; I was talking to a man on the other side of the country who had one of my kidneys. Unbelievable.
We met a few days before the parade in Pasadena. His family is beautiful and so gracious. It was a wonderful time. To see the joy in his smile and among the gathering of 15 family and friends was a profound reminder that one life is precious to so many.
And on New Year’s Day, Natasha and I had the privilege of walking in the Rose Parade. As I walked, and occasionally jogged, down Colorado Boulevard, I listened to the words of the theme song for our float, “I Was Here,” by Beyoncé. It was a constant reminder of this moment I was living and of our connection with the thousands of people who lined the parade route. What a celebration of life.
I intend to keep sharing this message wherever I can. To borrow from the theme of the Donate Life float: This is my never-ending story.
To learn more, visit the UCLA Kidney Transplant Center website.