CLEARWATER — They tried to talk her out of it, tried to find reasons why this was a bad idea or dangerous or just plain nuts.
But counselors, doctors, friends and family members could not dissuade 54-year-old Carolyn Brumfield from giving her kidney to a complete stranger a year ago today.
The two women held hands as they sat in matching surgical gowns, entering a rare and lifelong bond.
"I looked in her eyes, and then I knew what gratitude was," Brumfield recalled. "That was special to me."
• • •
Their story began three years ago when Brumfield was reading the New York Times as her toenails dried. She became engrossed in a tale of a woman saved by a stranger's gift of his own kidney.
That's kindness, Brumfield thought.
"I don't know why we're born with two kidneys when we only need one," Brumfield said. "I just knew I had to do it."
Brumfield, who took a year of nursing school and formerly worked in sales for a pharmaceutical company, is no stranger to the medical field. She is studying at the University of South Florida to become a cytologist, who studies cells in a lab. She says her knowledge of the body probably made the decision easier.
Altruism was no foreign concept, either.
Brumfield and her partner of 20 years, Bonny Blackham, volunteer for several organizations, including hospice, Habitat for Humanity and Relay for Life. Brumfield's cocker spaniel, Murphy, once worked as a therapy dog in retirement homes and hospitals.
Brumfield said she has always felt the need to give.
But giving a kidney to a stranger was something else altogether.
• • •
She found the recipient online, a smiling picture on matchingdonors.com and a plea from the woman's daughter:
"Will someone please help my mom?"
Brumfield learned that the woman was from Connecticut, liked to read, write and garden, and had grandchildren around the same age as Brumfield's nieces and nephews.
She said she felt connected to the woman immediately.
The daughter and Brumfield began e-mailing. "She was excited, but very tentative," Brumfield said.
It was about a month before the daughter told her mom. That was about the time Brumfield told her family too.
• • •
Months of tests followed. Brumfield flew to Connecticut several times to meet with the recipient's doctors.
The recipient's family paid for all the procedures and travel but did not pay Brumfield for the kidney. Buying and selling organs in the United States is illegal.
Eventually the doctors determined that the two women were a good match.
Brumfield also endured rigorous psychiatric questioning, standard procedure when giving an organ to a stranger.
Really, she told the inquisitors, she just wanted to be nice.
"No one could argue with that," Brumfield said.
She met the recipient for the first time the day of the surgery.
The bond between a donor and a recipient is close but unusual. Some hospitals have policies that forbid the two from ever meeting. Accepting a body part from a stranger is difficult, no matter how grateful a person is.
Brumfield recalled that her kidney recipient never seemed to know what to say.
"I walked in and there she was sitting there, and she just hugged me and held my hand so tightly," Brumfield said. "It was like I was totally aware of sitting there holding her hand and absolutely nothing else."
• • •
Kidney donations to strangers have become much more common in recent years, said Dr. Thomas Peters, president of the Kidney Foundation of Florida and director of the transplant center at Shands Jacksonville Medical Center.
Peters didn't work on Brumfield's case, but he said it's a fairly recent phenomenon.
Twenty years ago, it was rare to accept kidneys from anyone who wasn't blood-related — even spouses, Peters said.
That changed with better compatibility testing and a successful donation from a wife to her husband in the late 1980s. Soon friends were giving to friends, co-workers to co-workers and then strangers.
"As you would guess, the results are just the same as getting a kidney from a friend," Peters said. "The kidney doesn't know whether you know the recipient or not."
The need is there: More than 84,000 people remain on the national kidney waiting list, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
• • •
Brumfield and the recipient stay in touch through e-mail.
In the first few messages, the woman told Brumfield how difficult it was to tell people she knew from dialysis visits that she would not be returning.
It seemed like there was a strange new guilt there, Brumfield said. The woman, whose identity is kept private by the Kidney Foundation, declined to talk to a reporter.
If Brumfield hasn't heard from her in a while, she gets nervous. Is my kidney still working? Is she alive?
She knows she's not supposed to think that way, but she said sometimes she can't help it.
Then, another message: The woman's granddaughter just had her bat mitzvah, she wrote.
She and Brumfield's kidney danced the night away.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.