Man donates kidney to fellow Aledoan

Cala Smoldt/Staff Reporter
Amber Smock and Joel Miller pictured last Friday, Jan. 31 during their first get-together after the surgery.

Local Kidney Donation

This is a story with a happy ending. Most stories that grab your attention are crime-related or negatively shocking. I won't say this one will restore your faith in humanity, but perhaps it might just encourage your faith in God. What started out as a friendly acquaintanceship has turned into an enduring friendship.

It all started when Amber Smock was diagnosed with FSGS (Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis) in September of 2004 when she was pregnant with her first child, Ellie, now 9 years old. According to the Smocks, doctors don't know exactly what causes it, some believe it's caused by infection, some think it's hereditary. Doctors couldn't pinpoint which cause it could be, as no one in her family has been found to have this disease. It's a type of kidney disease that scars parts of the glomeruli, the filtering units of the kidney, and often leads to failure.

In November 2012 her doctor told them Amber's kidneys were failing. It was time to make plans to search for a donor and, in the meantime, to start dialysis.

She didn't have too long to wait for a kidney transplant. A little over a year would pass from the beginning of the process until the date of the surgery.

Three months after the news from their doctor in February 2013 Amber went to the University of Iowa Hospital where she was accepted as a transplant patient. In April Amber started Dialysis. Iowa City started testing possible donors right away.

"It was amazing the number of people from the community  that came forward offering to get tested (to be a donor)," said Amber. Bill said, "The thing about this community is, it always comes together when people are in need, it's humbling."

The complete process involved sending prospective donors to Iowa City to be tested and once those tests came back, if positive, they would continue with more testing to see if the donor was in good health to donate and to recover properly. Several potential donors could be tested at the same time at different stages of testing. Once the first person gets tested, they need additional tests - but Iowa City Hospital doesn't wait. They bring in the next person to be tested searching for the best possible match, moving quickly to find a donor.

Amber said she was nervous throughout the entire process. She's only 36, a wife and a mother to two young children. She said she tried not to think about it and just took one step at a time. She was on dialysis for 9 months. "I was fortunate because I elected to do it at home," Amber explained. She would do it every night while she slept. This allowed her to continue to work and keep a sense of normalcy for her children. "It was difficult," said Amber. She said it was definitely a change of lifestyle. Bill explained, "on the weekend she would take naps, but during the week, she toughed it out. She's pretty amazing."

Amber, eMarketing Manager at The HON Company, worked up until a week before surgery. Her hospital stay lasted 6 days.

They found out in August 2013 that Joel Miller was the best possible match and about 5 months later the process was complete.

The Miller's perspective

Joel Miller, son of Joe and Cathy Miller of Joy, knew he was meant to give a kidney as soon as he heard Amber Smock was in need. On Jan. 9 Joel, his wife Jen, and Bill and Amber Smock all rode up to the University of Iowa Hospital together, where Joel would donate his left kidney to Amber.

The Miller's are not unfamiliar with organ donation. His mother, Cathy Miller, donated a kidney to her husband when complications from diabetes caused him to go into kidney failure around 10 years ago. Joel attributes having seen kidney donation successfully completed in his own family as the reason for his confidence in the procedure. "I saw what it did for my dad, that was a big part of not worrying about it too much."

In January of 2008 Joel's 17 year old brother, David Miller, gave the ultimate gift of organ donation when he died in a car accident. Cathy explained David had already told them a few years prior to the accident that he would want his organs donated, should something happen. "He was aware of the need to donate," said Cathy. Incidentally the date of the transplant, Jan. 9, fell near to the anniversary of his passing.  Cathy said she was glad that it happened around the time of his passing, it made her feel better that something good like that was going taking place. The legacy of organ donation continued with Joel. "I'm very proud of my son for doing such a thing" said Cathy.

Jen Miller completely supported her husband's decision. They became acquaintances with the Smocks through their daughters being in the same class. It was around the dinner table at a New Year's party when the Miller's first heard about Amber's increasing need. Later that evening Joel told his wife, Jen, that he knew he was meant to donate. "I just had a feeling I would be a match," said Joel.

At first Jen thought he was joking. Joel has never been under anesthesia, never broken a bone, and in the past has had an aversion to doctors and needles. "We know that it was definitely God speaking to him," explains Jen. Once she realized he was serious, she supported her husband's decision entirely. "David was also a donor, so it's very  important to our family," Jen said Joel wore the donor bracelet given to the family by David's doctors for years as a reminder that his organs went to save lives.

On Jan. 9, the four rode up to The University of Iowa in one vehicle. Upon arrival, Joel and Amber were taken back together, placed in neighboring rooms, and their blood was taken in case of the need for a transfusion. They started preparing her about an hour before they took him into surgery. He explained they had one team working on her and one on him.

Despite the risks, Joel was never really nervous about donating his kidney. He said, "I felt like I was always going to do this from the moment I heard about it." Joel's hospital stay only lasted two days, he says he was, "fortunate to not have any complications."

Post-Op

Both Amber and Joel are recovering at home getting stronger by the day. Amber said, "everything is going well, the kidney started working wonderfully immediately." She has had to travel back and forth to Iowa City Hospital a few times a week for the first few weeks following the surgery. "The first 3-6 months are critical in terms of rejection," explained Amber. At these visits they do labs and balance medication. In the future they'll be able to do it locally and only travel to Iowa City every three months for check-ups.

As their young daughters, Tessa Miller and Ellie Smock, who initially brought them together say, these two families are, "bonded for life."

It could be said that this story does not actually have a 'happy ending' so much as it has a happy 'continuing' as people may continue to be blessed through it's telling.

Public Awareness

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Media Relations Tom Moore had this to say about live donor kidney transplant, "it doesn't happen with great frequency," he explained, "some people don't recognize that it's even possible to do. People don't realize that you don't have to be related biologically to donate a kidney to someone else."

The need is prevalent, in Illinois alone there are over 4,000 on the waitlist for a kidney (statistics found on www.transplantliving.org).

For more information, to get involved, or become a live donor visit www.uihealthcare.org just click 'info for' and choose 'donors' along the left side panel.

As always you can be certain you're an organ donor at the DMV where your wishes are expressed on your driver's license. You can also register by going to www.donatelifeillinois.org, click 'Sign Up.'