ST. PETERSBURG — Last Christmas, Marleen Crockett celebrated receiving a very special gift — a kidney from a living donor who has forever changed her life.
Today, she wants others to know that they, too, can make the same personal gift of a kidney to save the life of a relative, friend or even a stranger in need.
Crockett, 62, lives in St. Petersburg and has suffered from an inherited kidney disease. Her grandmother, her mother and her aunt died from it; her twin sister now has it, and her 31-year-old niece has it.
A year ago, Crockett's kidneys were failing. She felt tired all the time. Her weight escalated as her body was unable to clean her blood.
Doctors told her if she did not get a transplant, she soon would have to go on dialysis — strapped to a artificial kidney machine for hours a day, days each week.
"For 12 years I watched my grandmother slowly die on dialysis. I nursed my mother for 10 years until she decided to take herself off the machines. I didn't want to go through that," Crockett remembers.
She decided she would try for a transplant. She registered with LifeLink HealthCare Institute at Tampa General Hospital and learned that transplants can come in two very different ways.
One is by getting on the national transplant list and waiting for a suitable donor organ. Only the sickest are at the top of the list and by that time patients usually have been on dialysis for some time.
The other is for a living donor to offer one of their two kidneys. This usually is a personal arrangement between two people, often relatives. But it can be an open offer from strangers, as well.
Although Crockett did not ask anyone to donate a kidney, she received four personal offers: two from close friends, one from a cousin, and one from Brian Halpin, her niece Kate's husband.
"Making the offer was a little easier because Marleen is a good friend of mine," Joanne Lanning says. "When someone you love is in danger and is having a very terrible life and you have something that can change that, well, I just wanted to help."
Lanning, 60, was a match, but because of some personal health issues her doctor recommended against it.
Crockett's other friend and cousin were not matches.
That left Halpin.
"I said all along that I should be tested. It just kind of happened without thinking about it," Halpin recalled. "At first no one paid any attention. But when Marleen wasn't able to find a suitable donor match, the family finally started to hear me."
"Everyone started to freak out at first. People asked me what if my wife, Kate, or her mother needed a kidney in the future. I just said I have to take care of the person who has the immediate need," Halpin said.
He traveled from Pennsylvania to Florida twice — in October for the initial testing that confirmed he was a donor match and again in December for final testing and the actual surgery.
There was "pain and discomfort" for the first month, he said, and it took about six months until he felt "100 percent," but he has no regrets. Neither does his wife, Kate, who is now pregnant with their first child.
"Brian is a very special person. Of course I was nervous and concerned about his health, but it was the right thing to do," she says, while knowing that she, like her mother, will one day need a transplant as well.
Halpin says the change in Crockett since the transplant is remarkable. Once reluctant to enjoy life, she now lives life to the fullest. She goes to the gym to work out five days a week, has lost 50 pounds and looks 10 years younger.
"For the little bit of sacrifice it took to see that transformation in a person is utterly priceless," Halpin said.
Crockett says her surgery "was a breeze," an attitude she credits to a 27-year career as a nurse.
After the surgery, she took a six-week leave from her current job as a counselor at AMIkids Pinellas on St. Pete Beach and is now back working with troubled teens.
"God and Brian gave me a whole new life. I have been given a gift. I have such peace. Not a lot in my life is hard anymore," Crockett says.