After viewing a flier at her allergy clinic in September, she was driven to help save the life of Bryson Dickman, an 11-year-old Acworth resident who suffers from medullary cystic kidney disease. Along with initially praying for direction, the 48-year-old Cartersville resident said her inclination was reinforced when she passed a church sign that read, "Be an organ donor, give Jesus your heart."
"In the past I read probably lots of different newspaper articles, maybe even fliers, about people that need organs, kidneys and I thought, 'Well, I hope somebody helps them out' but never occurring to me that it could be me until this flier," Jennings said, adding the plea for help was posted by Bryson's mother, Lori Dickman, who works at the Cartersville allergy clinic. "And I was really the only one that made the telephone call to be Bryson's donor. So I think if I hadn't listened at that point, Bryson would still be waiting for a kidney.
"So what I'm hoping [is] when people see stories [of people needing transplants] that they realize it could be them and not just think, 'I hope somebody helps them out' because it could be whoever's reading the story. Don't discount the fact that it could be you. So that's the important thing and that goes with anything that you have to share, if you know of a need and you have the ability to fill it. Whether it's an organ or somebody that's hungry or maybe somebody that you know needs a tutor and you can help with that -- any need that you could fill, you might want to think, 'I could do something about that. I could make a difference.'"
Three days after viewing the flier, which provided a summary of Bryson's condition and details, like him having Type B positive blood, Jennings met with her doctor to discuss the process of organ donation and its possible disadvantages.
"I didn't want to call Lori and say, 'I think that I want to be tested' until I found out if I was healthy enough because I didn't want to get her hopes up if my doctor [discouraged it]," Jennings said. "I didn't know anything about organ donation so I just went to my doctor at Harbin Clinic and asked him to do a physical and what'd he think about kidney donation. And he said, 'You can live perfectly fine with one kidney. People do it all the time. You just have to watch your blood pressure and your weight.' And I've always had really low blood pressure, so that's been a blessing. And I went [to see him] Friday after seeing the flier on Tuesday. I just knew when I saw the flier that I was going to do it. I knew it.
"I think it was God's plan but I think also I've always been very fond of children. My mother had a home day care. I've always loved children. And [the flier] just spoke to me. It said that he just wanted to live a happy life and play outside and that his sister had gone through the same thing. And I thought somebody needs to give this kid a kidney like they found a kidney for his sister. So that's really what it was. It was, I think, a combination of how I was raised and the fact that God orchestrated it all from the very beginning."
Prior to the successful surgery on March 20, Jennings underwent about six months of testing, ensuring her health was not at risk. Along with the extensive preparation required by Atlanta's Emory University Hospital, Jennings said she also was surprised to learn there are tax incentives to becoming an organ donor, donors can receive a leave of absence from work and the recipient's insurance covers the donor's expenses.
Currently at home recuperating, Jennings will be forever linked to Bryson and his family. Following the surgery, Bryson's father, Joe Dickman, expressed his appreciation saying, "Tina is an incredible and amazing woman. We could never repay her for what she has done for our son, and we are forever indebted to her. She is Bryson's hero, and we love her. She is a member of our family now."
With March and April being National Kidney and National Donate Life months respectively, the importance of early detection concerning kidney disease and the need for donors is receiving widespread attention.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website, www.cdc.gov, "Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a condition in which the kidneys are damaged and cannot filter blood as well as possible. This damage can cause wastes to build up in the body and lead to other health problems, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), anemia, and bone disease. People with early CKD tend not to feel any symptoms. The only ways to detect CKD are through a blood test to estimate kidney function, and a urine test to assess kidney damage. CKD is usually an irreversible and progressive disease and can lead to kidney failure, also called End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), over time if it is not treated.
"Once detected, CKD can be treated through medication and lifestyle changes to slow down the disease progression, and to prevent or delay the onset of kidney failure. However, the only treatment options for kidney failure are dialysis or a kidney transplant. ... CKD is common among adults in the United States. More than 10 percent of people, or more than 20 million, aged 20 years or older in the United States have CKD.
* CKD is more common among women than men.
* More than 35 percent of people aged 20 years or older with diabetes have CKD.
* More than 20 percent of people aged 20 years or older with hypertension have CKD."
Along with reporting that she expects her patient to "live a healthy and fulfilling life," Jennings' surgeon, Dr. Nicole Turgeon, also stressed the importance of kidney donors.
"The living donor kidneys last longer than deceased donors. You [also] do not have to wait for a kidney on the waiting list," Turgeon said about the advantages of using an organ from a living donor versus one who is deceased. "While on the waiting list your health could decline significantly. The living donor kidneys work immediately in the majority of cases. You can also plan the surgery.
"Deceased donor kidneys are also very important as not all patients are able to receive a kidney from a living donor. There are over 80,000 people on the kidney waiting list nationally and not nearly enough organs for all of these patients. Tina's gift should serve as a reminder to sign up to be an organ donor to give the gift of life to someone in need," she said, adding potential donors are required to pass an extensive health evaluation by the Emory transplant team before being selected.
While Jennings served as an organ donor, her fellow Cartersville resident Jim Agan is seeing the need for transplants from another vantage point.
Known to the Bartow community as the co-owner of Agan's Bakery, he presently is undergoing dialysis three days a week and is seeking a living kidney donor whose blood type is 0 positive to help enhance his quality of life. Like Bryson, Agan was unable to find an eligible donor within his family and is appealing to the community for assistance. Even though two matches have fallen through in the past, the 65-year-old said he still remains optimistic about his future.
"My prayer is that I can have some time left," Agan said. "We have a third generation business here -- Agan's Bakery. My daughter Abbey's running it for me now and I need to be able to help more. And when you do dialysis, my dialysis takes me at least four-and-a-half hours a day and it makes you weak when you do your dialysis. So you don't feel like a ball of fire. In fact, you don't feel good when you do dialysis. Nobody does. That's just the way it is.
"You don't have your energy and once you [receive a] kidney [transplant], you start getting that energy and you get your life back. ... You just can't go forever on dialysis. A lot of people just quit because you feel bad. It's not fun to go there and have needles stuck in your arm and sit there for all that time. So the main thing it would mean to me is to be able to get back into the bakery and help my daughter. I try to do that now, and I do some, but I don't have that energy level. ... I've never wanted to retire. That's just not a word in my vocabulary. I like doing things [and dialysis] keeps me from being as involved as I used to be."
In 2001, Agan started experiencing symptoms, such as declining health and swelling in his legs. After visiting the doctor, a small cancerous nodule was discovered on his right kidney, leading to his organ being removed. Since 2008, Agan has received dialysis, with the procedure being administered at home for the first three years. With Agan experiencing nearly 100 percent kidney failure, he currently undergoes dialysis at DaVita in Cartersville.
"I hope I'm going to get a transplant soon," Agan said, adding he also is on Emory's kidney transplant waiting list. "I don't know why I'm so optimistic. Everybody's praying for me and I really hope something turns up. ... It's a hard disease.
"You've got to really want to live to go through all this stuff and I do. I've got family that I love very much and I really want to live for my family and for my friends and for what I do. So I try the best I can to eat well and do the right thing as far as my health. And every day I get up and say, 'Well, [I] may be a day closer to a transplant.'"
Through his experience, Agan has been able to see how prevalent kidney disease is, leading him to become an advocate for organ donation.
"I've always been a donor on my license," he said. "I just do that automatically. But you don't think about that until you have a problem and since I've had this problem, all of a sudden I'm in the pool with the people with the bad kidneys. ... It's just amazing what the technology [can do] now that you can have a normal life back if you get one of these organs. There's so many that are wasted because people don't know what they can do. And no one, believe me honestly I would never want anyone to be in a car crash or something like that to get a kidney.
"I would rather it be from somebody who just wants to do it or so forth. But if something happens like that, people do need to know that they can [save a] life for somebody else if the organs are passed. I've been really conscious about being an advocate for organ donating because it is so important to so many people. I've actually sat in the center and watched these people. It will just bring tears to your eyes. It helps me forget about myself but I'll see how it affects their lives and how they don't feel good. It brings you down to earth when you see the reality of what some people go through."
For more information about donating a kidney for Agan and those going through similar health problems, contact the Emory Transplant Center at 404-712-4857. To be an organ donor after one's deceased, a person can declare their intentions on their driver's license or by carrying an organ donor card that can be downloaded on the National Kidney Foundation's website, www.kidney.org.