Olivia's Story

Altruistic kidney donor Olivia Zick, left, with her recipient Jessica, and her husband, who donated too, on his wife's behalf as part of a paired kidney exchange.

Altruistic kidney donor Olivia Zick, left, with her recipient Jessica, and her husband, who donated too, on his wife's behalf as part of a paired kidney exchange.

Name: Olivia Zick
City/Town: West Chester, Ohio
Current Age: 25
Occupation: Human Resources professional
Date of Donation: December 21, 2016
Hospital and Location: The Christ Hospital, Cincinnati, Ohio


Did you know your recipient? 
I did not know my recipient. I was an altruistic donor.

What made you decide to donate?
Around Thanksgiving in 2015, I had gotten home from work and was sitting on my couch watching the news. There was a story about a single mother of four living in Northern Kentucky who was searching for a kidney. The family had written on the family van “My mom needs a kidney.” As I sat there, I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t I get tested?” The next thing I did was send an email to the transplant coordinator at the hospital to see what all the steps were. 

I was not a match but continued through the testing process to go on the paired kidney exchange with her. About eight months later that woman received a kidney from a deceased donor. In October 2016 my transplant coordinator asked me if I wanted to be an altruistic donor and I said yes, without hesitation. 

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving they officially put me in their system, and within three hours they found a match for me. My coordinator Jessica Enzweiler asked me if I could donate on December 21 and I said yes. (December 21 is my birthday, and to me, that was the best way I could possibly spend it.)

Was it a tough decision? 
I did not think twice about it. For me, if I can help someone, then I’m going to do it. I am the type of person that when I set my mind to doing something, there is no convincing me otherwise. I was completely set on donating.

What were your biggest concerns about donating? 
I had no real concerns about the process itself; I think my biggest concern and worry was, ”What if they don’t deem me as healthy enough to donate?”

How did your family and friends react when you told them you were going to donate? 
There were three people in my life who I felt that I needed to get a “blessing” from as their opinions truly mattered to me. The first was my partner Melissa, who is an operating room nurse at another local hospital. I was nervous asking her, and she ended up being the easiest person to talk to. She just said, “Okay, cool.” 

The second was my mom Carol. She didn’t say much and was initially against it. Like any mother, she was nervous and didn’t want something to happen. She also knew that my mind was set, so she was going to be as supportive as she could be. The third person was my manager Mary. I obviously was going to need to take time off of work to do this and if I couldn’t get the time off then, I wouldn’t be able to do this. When I sat down to talk with her about it, her response was, “If it wereme, I personally wouldn’t do it. But if you want to give away body parts go ahead, I’ll support you.”

After that, it was the rest of my family and friends. I had a mix of those who were completely against the donation, those who admired it, and those who had no opinion either way. Those who were against it spoke louder than the rest and questioned the “what-ifs?” What if someone in the family needs one someday? What if something happens to your kidneys someday? I felt like it was a guilt trip to a point, but I know at the end of the day it was out of care and love. The one question I received a lot and still get to this day is, “Why would you donate to someone you’ve never even met before?”

Kidney donor Olivia, right, flew to Los Angeles to meet her recipient Jessica and her family. 

Kidney donor Olivia, right, flew to Los Angeles to meet her recipient Jessica and her family. 

How did your surgery go? 
My surgery was scheduled for 5:00 AM on Wednesday, December 21, because the kidney had to make its way out to Southern California. With surgery so early in the morning, I had to stay overnight the night before surgery. Surgery did go completely as planned with no complications.

What was your recovery like while you were in the hospital? 
Recovery was tough. I had never had surgery before and had no idea what to expect for pain. They ended up keeping me for four days, three nights because I was not recovering as quickly as I should have. When I first woke up in my room after surgery, I remember that I felt so bloated. My hands looked like little sausages, and I could not even hold a cup because they blew up so much. The incision and gas pain are a very real thing and I struggled with both. The gas pain was most felt in my shoulders and it made me not even want to move. I did not sit up in bed until the day after surgery, and when I did that, I immediately threw up. My first meal was a piece of toast and ice chips.

It wasn’t until the third day that I was able to get up and walk. This was the same day that they took the pain ball out of me. Breathing was very difficult, I didn’t think it would be that hard. You don’t realize how being cut open and having the gases will affect you in that way. This day, my appetite was getting back to normal and I ate more than just toast. I was keeping down an actual meal.

What was your recovery like at home? 
Recovery at home was better for me than at the hospital. I could sleep without constantly being interrupted. I could walk around and go to the bathroom as needed. I took two doses of Oxycodone and Tylenol for pain. 

What was the most difficult part of recovery? 
The most difficult part was not feeling “normal” fast enough. Going to the bathroom with ease was one thing I had taken for granted until this experience. ☺

I did enjoy staying on the couch with my dog Duke, he kept me company and was a great snuggle buddy. Once I did start feeling back to normal, boredom started to set in. There was only so much TV I could watch.

When did you return to work? 
I went back to work after 2 ½ weeks. I believe I pushed going back to work faster because I had been so bored and just wanted some “normalcy.” My manager and team were very surprised because I was originally going to be off 4-6 weeks. Looking back, I wish I had taken more time off, I physically felt ready, but mentally and emotionally I was not ready. 

How long was the process from making the first contact about donating until your surgery? 
The entire process took 13 months. It took longer for me because I was originally going to be a direct donor, then when I wasn’t a match I was going to be a partner for the kidney exchange. Then my original intended recipient received a kidney so they had to work with my schedule before putting me on the list as an altruistic donor.

Is there anything about being a kidney donor that's surprised you? 
I think the most surprising thing was the two extremes of opposition and support that friends and family gave. It amazed me how many people would say, “I would do it for a family member or close friend, but no one else.” The second most surprising thing to me was how little myself and others know about kidney disease and how it affects all of the people waiting for a transplant. 

Would you do it again? 
During recovery, my mom asked me this very question. At the time I was in so much pain I said no. But all in all, yes I would do it again in a heartbeat. 

A month after my surgery, my life had pretty much gone back to normal, but I felt like something was missing. I had done some research and recognized that I was going through “Living Donor Depression.” I immediately reached out to the transplant team, and they brought me in to talk. They actually had a letter from my recipient that they shared with me, which helped tremendously. She shared how was doing, and it was signed with just her first name.

At the two-month mark, they told me they had another letter from her, so I went in. That letter had her contact information. She told me in the letter that because of her kidney disease she could not have any more children (she has one son now) and she wanted to have a bigger family. When I left Christ Hospital, I sent a text to that number, when she responded back asking who I was, I responded with, “I’m Olivia Zick, your kidney donor.” We have grown a tremendous friendship. We talk at the very least once a week, but normally more. She is doing very well, health-wise. I found out that for her to get my kidney, she needed a buddy to donate one, and that was her husband. 

I wanted to meet her so in November of 2017, I flew out to Los Angeles and stayed with her and her family for a few days. They are phenomenal people, and truly now part of my family. I met some of her siblings and their family and they were all so thankful for me, but I was thankful for them. They welcomed me with open arms. My recipient Jessica and I are truly sisters at heart, and I feel I received even more than I gave during this process.