Have You Ever Considered Donating a Kidney?

The convincing story of one Drexel Hill woman’s fight against a ravaging disease.

The difference between tactics and strategy is substantial. A tactic is a method employed to help achieve a goal. A strategy is the long-term plan of action to achieve that goal. Four years ago, that distinction was crystal clear to a 31-year-old Drexel Hill woman who had been ravaged by diabetes.

Christine Grosso’s strategy was simple, but far from easy: survive the debilitating disease that had left her nearly blind in one eye, caused her sugar count to frequently soar over 600 (150 is high), and made her a regular in emergency rooms from Temple to Shore Memorial.

More pressing, however, was the tactic she needed to employ to continue her fight. She needed a kidney transplant, since one of the consequences of diabetes is that the body’s overstressed organs often shut down, placing the person’s life in jeopardy. Christine’s story was bittersweet; her courage, determination and heartwarming attitude almost made one forget how perilous her situation had become.

What Is Diabetes?

Christine’s symptoms first appeared when she was 13, and were noticed by her mother, Toni: increased thirst and appetite (yet the result was weight loss), frequent urination, and mood swings. Grosso’s pediatrician initially thought these changes were related to puberty. Further investigation, however, revealed something different and far more ominous: Type 1 diabetes.

“In the beginning, my treatment consisted of insulin injections twice a day, blood sugar tests four times a day, and a strict diet consisting of four meals a day, at specific times,” Christine recounts. “Basically, I couldn’t eat the junk food that teenagers love. I would have to eat whenever my blood sugar was low, and couldn’t join everyone at a meal if my blood sugar was elevated.”

Type 1 diabetes results from the lack of insulin production by the pancreas. Since insulin is a hormone required by all cells to utilize glucose for energy, a deficiency results in the depletion of energy stores, such as liver glycogen, fat and eventually muscle mass. This leads to significant weight loss and fatigue, and, left uncorrected, soon leads to the excretion of glucose in the urine and metabolic imbalance (ketoacidosis), requiring hospitalization. The longer-term effects are much more severe: damage to various organs and body systems, notably the kidneys, the eyes, the nervous system and the heart.

Why a Kidney Transplant?

Christine’s condition steadily deteriorated over 17 years. Whereas in high school she was involved in numerous activities, her lifestyle had become hampered. Her body functions had taken a tremendous blow, with the kidneys taking the biggest hit. When the tiny blood vessels (nephrons) in the kidneys become damaged by diabetes, the filtering units of the kidney are less able to filter unwanted substances from the blood. Damaged nephrons are also less able to retain essential substances, such as proteins. In time, as the kidneys continue to fail, the patient will require a kidney transplant.

After an exhaustive process, Christine qualified for such a transplant. But that was just the beginning. If a suitable donor was not found quickly, she would be forced to begin dialysis—never a sustainable long-term solution. “My transplant time was as soon as possible since I was being evaluated for dialysis,” she explains. “If a live kidney donor was not found, I would have had to wait until a cadaveric source (kidneys of organ donors upon their deaths) was found that matched my tissue type. This could have taken years.”

Finding a Kidney Donor

The need for a kidney transplant is determined by a nephrologist, based on tests of the patient’s kidney function and clinical condition. Once the patient is found suitable as a transplant recipient, he or she is placed on the United Network of Organ Sharing list for a cadaveric source of a kidney.

But finding a kidney donor is a very personal process. “In my case, I began as soon as I was informed that I needed a transplant. I composed a Gift of Life letter in which I described myself and asked if anyone would be interested in being tested. Surprisingly, several people whom I did not know contacted me,” Christine says. Yet two of those individuals were not a match.

“When I found out they were not suitable, I revised the letter and again circulated it to friends, churches, schools, businesses and newspapers. Several more people offered to help. My donor profile was someone between 21 and 60, in good health, same blood type, and without a history of cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure.” Easier said than done. If the potential donor was either rejected by the center or by the recipient, a new potential donor would be tested, and the process started anew.

Christine’s Support Network

Through it all, Christine’s parents never left her side. “Our lives changed drastically after Christine became chronically ill. One or both of us is with her 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” her father, Lou, says.

Toni elaborates: “Before the transplant, Christine was constantly in the hospital.” The hospital stays usually were a week to 10 days, with Christine’s parents taking turns to always be in her room. “Although not under the best circumstances, Christine’s illness has brought us all closer together.”

Christine’s attitude kept her spirits high. “My faith has helped me to deal with most of my medical problems, by trying to find positive reasons for my condition. Since I was 13, I have been searching for someone like myself to talk to. These people are hard to find, and dealing with diabetes is the hardest thing I have ever done.”

Because of this, Christine helps others with similar conditions. “I counsel young diabetics, and this helps me as well as them. It feels good making a difference in someone’s life.”

The search for a kidney was difficult but rewarding. Along the way, Christine became reacquainted with old friends, and met complete strangers selfless enough to offer a part of their body. “It is so overwhelming to meet these amazing people,” she reflects.

The Guardian Angel and the Transplant

Despite the unimaginable heartbreak for Christine and her parents when two donors fell through at the last minute, their undying faith paid off. A donor responded to a church bulletin article chronicling Christine’s inspirational story and her need for a kidney. The donor, who did not know Christine or her family (yet, ironically, lived just four blocks away), and who wished, at first, to remain anonymous, met all the transplant requirements. Soon thereafter, she placed her own life in jeopardy by undergoing surgery, literally giving part of herself to another in the ultimate act of selflessness.

The result? Success beyond expectations. Christine Grosso just celebrated her four-year transplant anniversary—rejuvenated, vibrant and alive. No longer just surviving, she is once again living. While diabetes will forever be with her, the tables have now turned, with Christine controlling the disease. Her donor, Marie Manley—who can only be described as a true guardian angel—is also doing remarkably well, living a fully functional life and now working at the Kidney Transplant Program at Lankenau Hospital as a transplant assistant, counseling donors and recipients. She changed her mind about anonymity after realizing the value in telling her story.

In an age where many glibly say they “give back” and “give of themselves”—while making sure everybody knows it—there are still real heroes like Ms. Manley who believe that charity should be altruistic, the only “reward” being the selfless act of giving. She exemplifies those who truly walk the walk, content with the knowledge that she made the ultimate difference in someone else’s life.

In Christine Grosso’s case, Marie Manley’s act of charity was, quite literally, a lifesaver. Perhaps most amazing is something which will never be known—how many people, after learning of Christine and Marie’s remarkable story, were inspired to themselves become donors—and lifesavers.

There is no greater love than risking one’s own life to save another. In the spiritual, charitable and literal sense, donating a kidney is truly the gift that keeps on giving.