Eighteen months later, she had taken the almost unprecedented step of donating her left kidney to a total stranger, a 13-year-old Maryland boy. Though some 4,000 healthy people donated kidneys in the U.S. last year, such volunteers almost always give only to relatives or close friends in desperate need. Only Roush and one other anonymous donor have offered their kidneys without first knowing the recipient. "How many people would come forward to do this?" says Dr. Lloyd Ratner, a transplant surgeon at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Joyce is a hero."
It was Ratner who showed a video in Indianapolis about a technique he and Dr. Louis Kavoussi had developed to remove kidneys with laparoscopic surgery requiring four small incisions, only one of which is longer than half an inch. Afterward, Roush—a mother of two, stepmother of three and a former hospice nurse who is a coordinator at the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization—approached Ratner to sign up. "He said, 'Do you know someone that needs a kidney?' " she recalls. "And I said, 'No, but I know there's 40,000 people who do, and one of them has got to match my kidney.' He said, 'This has never been done before.' "
That didn't deter Roush. Though her husband, Richard, an optometrist, was stunned at first, he backed his wife without reservation once he learned the procedure was relatively safe and that thousands of people lead normal lives with just one kidney. First, Johns Hopkins required that Roush undergo a battery of physical and psychological tests. "We needed to make sure she wasn't just doing it impulsively," says Ratner. Finally they approved the donation, but it wasn't until June that Hopkins called to tell Roush that a suitable recipient had been found: 13-year-old Christopher Bieniek of Aberdeen, Md. "I was thrilled," says Roush.
Christopher had been in good health until last December, when he'd begun feeling ill. "We figured he had the flu because all the kids at school were getting it," recalls his mother, Terry, 44. But a doctor gave them the bad news: Christopher's kidneys had inexplicably shut down. "It was like—boom!—my world just slammed," says Terry, a cosmetics-factory worker married to Harold, 45, a bottle-factory maintenance worker. After surgery to prepare Christopher for dialysis, the boy spent months on a cumbersome home-dialysis machine for eight to 10 hours a night. His only hope for recovery was a transplant, but doctors warned he could wait years. Then in June came the call about Roush. "It was like a miracle," says Terry. "I was praying, and God chose her."
On Sept. 7, doctors removed Roush's kidney and within minutes substituted it for one of Christopher's. Four days later, Roush was out of the hospital, and within weeks Christopher too seemed fully recovered. (He was hospitalized in mid-October with routine postoperative problems, and to avoid infection he won't return to school until January.)
Roush also has to be careful, avoiding activities that might harm her remaining kidney. That hasn't been easy for a self-described daredevil who in 1997 bungee-jumped off a 275-ft.-high bridge in Costa Rica. "Am I going to take up kick-boxing?" she says. "Probably not." But it has been worth it to her to spread the word about kidney donation. "That's what I felt all along," she says. "If I were willing to tell the story, there would be others who would make the decision I made."
The experience has also made her Christopher's friend for life, and she speaks with him at least once a week. He has made her promise to be at his high school graduation. "She is part of me," he says. "She will always be part of me."
Hayes Ferguson in Fort Wayne and Susan Gray in Aberdeen
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