FEATURE | Posted May 12, 2016

Far more than a job

Living kidney donation is personal for UC Davis transplant nurse

UC Davis Transplant Center nurse Sharon Stencel with her aunt Sandra and Sandra’s family. Photo courtesy of Stuart Greenbaum.
UC Davis Transplant Center nurse Sharon Stencel (middle, left) donated a kidney to her aunt Sandra Stencel (behind Sharon). They are pictured with Sandra's family (clockwise): daughter-in-law Laura, granddaughter CeCe, son Paul and grandson Joey. Photo courtesy of Stuart Greenbaum.

Sharon Stencel spends her time at work educating patients and potential organ donors about living kidney donation. It’s a subject she understands well. Stencel is a nurse in the UC Davis Transplant Center, and a kidney donor.

“I always knew I would be a donor,” said Stencel, coordinator of the Living Kidney Donor Program at UC Davis. “I didn’t know the exact moment it would happen, but I knew it would happen at some point.”

Her moment came unexpectedly two years ago while visiting family in Michigan. When she asked her aunt Sandra, who didn’t seem 100 percent well, how she was feeling, she got a standard response: a smile and an “Oh, I’m fine.” Sandra's son had a kidney transplant in 2006 and the same health issues could affect family members, so the nurse in Stencel automatically asked the outcome her aunt's latest kidney function test. It was below 20 percent — the point at which people begin dialysis and are placed on transplant lists.

“I told her right away, ‘I’ll be your donor,’” Stencel said. “She could see I was determined and there would be no arguing about it.”

Helping more through paired exchange

It turned out that Stencel and her aunt weren’t a match for transplant, but their journey didn’t end there. They were linked with another unmatched donor-recipient pair as part of a national organ exchange program. As a result, Stencel’s kidney went to a recipient in Florida, whose donor's kidney went to Sandra in Michigan.

Advantages of living kidney donation

  • Reduces or avoids wait time
  • Greater life expectancy compared to dialysis
  • Longer-functioning kidneys compared to deceased donor kidneys
  • Similar survival from related or unrelated donors
  • Also possible if donor is not a match through paired exchange

Now is a great time to find out more about the process involved in becoming an organ donor.

For information about living kidney donation, visit the UC Davis Transplant Center website.

For information about all organ and tissue donation in the Sacramento region, visit the website of Sierra Donor Services.

For most kidney transplants, the recipient's and donor's surgeries take place in the same hospital. Stencel insisted, however, on having her procedure at UC Davis Medical Center.

“Sandy had a wonderful team, but it was very important to have the colleagues I have known and trusted for over 20 years be part of my own donor process,” Stencel said.

Guidance based on experience

Today Stencel uses her experiences to guide UC Davis patients in talking with loved ones who could be organ donors. Potential donors also tend to have dozens of questions for her, ranging from length of recovery time to exercise after surgery. Surgical techniques for kidney donors have advanced in recent years and are often minimally invasive, however full recovery often takes six weeks. After that, donors typically return to their normal activities.

“The surgery and recovery actually weren’t as bad as I thought they would be,” Stencel said. “It was no walk in the park but it went very smoothly, even though I wasn’t as compliant as I should have been. Everyone knows nurses make the worst patients.”

She also shares an even stronger bond with her aunt, who has done very well since the surgery.

“Every day at work I see the frustration and pain of living with end-stage kidney disease and the fear of not knowing when or if you are going to be able to have a transplant,” Stencel said. “That I could save my aunt and another person through the exchange program means the world to me. I just wish I had more than one kidney to give.”

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