A Dream Realized: Woman Donates Kidney to Her Stepfather
Standing before 500 colleagues at an annual meeting in Florida, beauty salon manager Michelle Harazak struggled through tears to finish her presentation. The 40-year-old from Tampa told the gathering of Hair Cuttery stylists that she recently donated a kidney to her stepfather in Chicago.
"I explained that I was a match and that I needed to do the right thing," Harazak said. She described her journey -- from watching her mother go through two organ transplants to becoming a donor for her stepfather, Ron Egger. And she thanked the stylists from her salon and the company for their tremendous support.
"My goal was to increase awareness and to encourage other people to think about donating," she said. The audience gave her a standing ovation.
The surgery took place at the University of Chicago Medicine in June 2012. Transplant surgeon Piotr Witkowski, MD, PhD, performed Harazak’s operation laparoscopically, removing her left kidney through a small incision below her belly button. In an adjacent operating room, a separate transplant team, led by surgeon Yolanda Becker, MD, readied Egger for open surgery. A few hours later, he had a healthy new kidney.
Years before, Egger, of Manhattan, Ill., married Harazak’s mother, Sheila, after a courtship that began at the medical center in 1996. At that time, Ron Egger was undergoing his first kidney transplant and Sheila Egger was being treated for rejection of a kidney-pancreas transplant.
It is not unusual for kidney transplant recipients to be treated for rejection and to need more than one kidney in their lifetime. Witkowski explains that the average donor kidney lasts between ten and 15 years. "Medications to slow rejection are continually getting better, but over time ’chronic rejection’ will eventually cause the donor organ to fail," he said.
Deciding to Donate
When Sheila Egger first went on the waiting list for the kidney-pancreas transplant 21 years ago, Harazak registered to be an organ donor. For her mother’s second transplant in 2007, she volunteered to donate a kidney, but because she had two young children at the time, her mother wouldn’t accept the offer.
Harazak recalls sitting in the waiting room on the transplant unit during her mother’s surgeries: "I observed other families coming together and sharing stories. I can’t even begin to explain the excitement and joy I saw when the surgeon came in and said, ‘It’s a success.’" Harazak decided that one day she’d donate a kidney to someone in need.
In early 2012, knowing that her stepfather was extremely ill and in need of a second kidney transplant, Harazak told her family that she wanted to be considered as the donor. "I tried to talk her out of it again this time," Sheila Egger said. "But Michelle was absolutely insistent.”
Harazak contacted University of Chicago Medicine living donor coordinator, Jeanine Elkin, RN, CCTN, CCTS. Elkin explained that she, a social worker and a physician would serve as Harazak’s "living donor advocate team." They would help her navigate the donation process as well as protect her rights and wishes throughout the experience.
"Our role was also to protect Michelle ‘against herself’,’" Elkin said. "By nature, donors are selfless people who want to donate no matter what. They don’t want to hear about risks or complications. Our team informs and educates them so they are fully prepared. We oversee the whole package -- medical, physical, emotional and financial.”
Elkin asked Harazak to have blood drawn near her home and sent to the medical center for testing. A few weeks later, Elkin called her with the news: she and Ron Egger were a good match.
Harazak came to Chicago in April for outpatient testing to ensure that she was healthy enough to undergo surgery and to live with only one kidney. The exams included urine and blood tests, a chest X-ray, and a heart function test. In addition, a CT scan of her kidneys confirmed her organs were in good condition and determined the left kidney would be the better one to remove.
Following the surgery on June 19, the donor and recipient remained hospitalized for a few days and were discharged just a day apart. Less than a month after surgery, Harazak returned home and started back to work part-time at her salon.
Texting about "Lefty”
It took about three months to fully recuperate but Harazak now says she "almost forgets" she had the surgery. That is until she speaks to her stepfather on the phone. "I can hear it in his voice every time I talk to him," she explained. "It’s just very real that he is healthy and motivated and doing things."
Ron Egger comes to the medical center regularly for follow-up blood tests. When he gets the results, he texts his stepdaughter to let her know the kidney she nicknamed "Lefty" is doing well.
"People often tell me I am a hero," said Harazak, "but I always respond, ‘no, I had to do it. If I didn’t donate, Ron would have been on his deathbed. Instead he can be with his grandchildren.”
Calling his new kidney miraculous, Ron Egger says he feels thoroughly blessed by Michelle’s donation. "She is the hero in all of this," he said.
Become an Organ Donor
The list of patients waiting for a kidney or other organ is far longer than the number of organs available. Here’s how you can help:
- Register in your state to become an organ donor and inform your family members of your decision. Visit the sites below for more information and to register.
- Life Goes On – Organ and tissue donation registry for the State of Illinois
- Donate Life America – not-for-profit alliance of national organizations and state teams in the US committed to increasing organ, eye and tissue donation
- Gift Of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network - a not-for-profit organ procurement organization that coordinates organ and tissue donation in Illinois and northwest Indiana
- Consider becoming a living donor
- A living donor can give one kidney or a part of their liver from his or her own living body for transplantation to a family member or unrelated donor. The University of Chicago Medicine Transplant Center coordinates personalized transplant care for recipients and donors.
- Living Donors: What You Can Expect (PDF): This helpful guide outlines basics about who can be a living donor for kidney transplant, what to expect before and after surgery, and answers other common questions.