Helping Hands: Dare to be an organ donor
Ryan Summerlin April 24, 2013
Morgan Wilkinson is your typical 12-year-old. He loves camping, skiing, four-wheeling and playing with the family dogs. He’s a Rockies fan. He spent spring break in Florida, boogie boarding in the surf with his older brother Robert. His plan when he grows up is to become a professional golfer.
Unlike many of his peers, however, Morgan has a heightened sense of gratitude. At age 6, he contracted a rare disease called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, associated with acute kidney failure, among other symptoms.
“He was pretty sick,” said Karen Wilkinson, Morgan’s mother.
It was Labor Day weekend and Morgan wasn’t feeling well. He looked tired, Wilkinson said, and she planned to take him in for a checkup during the week. Then, while roughhousing with his brother, he fell on his side.
“It was an instant bruise,” Wilkinson said, “And we thought, ‘What causes that?'”
A trip to the doctor quickly revealed that all was not right and in just two days Morgan was at the hospital in Denver. He spent the next year in and out of the hospital, doing dialysis and other treatments to get him stable and well enough to go onto the kidney transplant list.
That time was hard on the family. Robert stayed with family friends while Karen and her husband, Steve, traded off spending nights in the hospital with Morgan. Many times, it was unclear whether Morgan would make it.
Then, in an instant, everything changed.
On July 5, one day after Morgan’s birthday, the family got a phone call informing them that Morgan had been placed at the top of the donor list. All he had to do was wait for a match. Karen and Steve both got tested. It turned out Karen was a good match, but the process to become an organ donor can take a year or more.
Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait that long. On July 17 they got another phone call, this time announcing there was a kidney for Morgan. He went into surgery on the 19th and started improving from there.
“We’re lucky (his story) has a good ending,” Karen Wilkinson said. “There were quite a few times we were pretty worried he wasn’t going to be there.”
Now, Morgan lives a relatively normal life. Aside from having to take a few pills, being extra safe with germs and avoiding contact sports like football, Morgan is just like any other kid his age.
The experience has motivated him to spread information about organ donation among his friends and others in the community. He particularly enjoys working with the Chris Klug Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Aspen and founded by liver transplant recipient and Olympic medalist snowboarder Chris Klug. As one of the “Donor Dudes,” Morgan participates in the organization’s events and works to educate others about organ donation.
Morgan’s goal, he said, is “to help spread organ donation, and to get my friends into it.”
While Morgan is doing well for now, it’s possible he may need another transplant in the future. The kidney he received came from a 10-year-old boy who died in an accident. Organs from a live donor tend to do better in the long run than those taken from cadavers.
“When I got that phone call, I was really happy for him,” Wilkinson said, “but then I looked at my husband and I said, ‘Somebody’s dying.’ And that’s really sad, but in a way they live on.”
By working with the Donor Dudes at the Chris Klug Foundation, Morgan hopes to continue to raise awareness and increase understanding of organ donations. However, he has already had an impact when it comes to donation.
Brad Dickerson has known the Wilkinson family for many years. Several years ago the families became neighbors, living next to each other up on Peak 7 in Breckenridge. The kids play together and the families will take joint camping trips.
When Morgan got sick, the Dickersons threw their support behind the Wilkinson family. They visited Morgan while he was in the hospital and rejoiced when the news came that he had gotten a kidney.
The whole experience got Brad Dickerson thinking. He visits the Denver Children’s Hospital from time to time with his daughter Terra, who has cerebral palsy. Dickerson took the opportunity to learn more about kidney donation.
What he learned surprised and amazed him.
“It was really fascinating to find out about it,” he said. “I never really knew about this stuff.”
Armed with information, Dickerson took about six months to think the decision over. He discussed it with his family and took time to educate himself about the process.
“There’s a lot of factors, so I was pretty moved by that, and it was really difficult decision because I wasn’t quite sure,” he said, “but they want people to donate by about 50 years of age. After that it’s a little problematic for them and more issues arise, so I just turned 50 so that was kind of my time if I wanted to do it.”
As a potential donor, Dickerson was also under scrutiny from the hospital.
“They do a lot of testing,” he explained. “Then what I was really surprised about, too, was they assign you a case worker, a psychologist, an independent advocator who’s not even associated with the hospital at all. This whole team of people, they really kind of grill you – why do you want to do this, are you sure, are you financially able to, are you helpful enough? That whole process took like a year. … I thought this would be like come in a week from Thursday and you can donate your kidney,” he added with a laugh.
Finally, all the hoops had been jumped through. In December of 2012, Dickerson went to Denver and had one of his kidneys removed. It was flown to Michigan, where a match had been found.
Although it was a somewhat nerve-wracking experience, Dickerson said he’s glad that he did it and has no regrets.
“It was a great learning experience, just incredibly educational,” he said. A friendly, outgoing person by nature, Dickerson speaks enthusiastically about what he learned and what the experience was like. He laughs through descriptions of his nervousness and beams when he discusses the results.
“Living here in Summit County, we’re so lucky, we’re so fortunate, and every day you wake up, and … it’s just the most beautiful place, and to live here, you’re so fortunate. And then you see people like Morgan, who came close to death, and you see people who are on dialysis and it’s a difficult life, and those people are going to die unless they get a kidney.
“And then being at the Children’s Hopsital (in Denver) a lot, it only takes five minutes in that hospital and you see cancer patients and kids who are going to die, and you just realize how fortunate you are, so to be able to donate a kidney and to save someone’s life seemed like a pretty easy thing to do.”