Jan. 11-17, 2002
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Kidney donation a true gift of love

Teeny Higginbotham and Liz Courain
John Aufill
Liz Courain (right), director of Volunteer Services in the Medical Center, donated a kidney to her friend and long-time hospital volunteer Teeny Higginbotham.

By John Aufill

If the U.Va. Medical Center has a No. 1 fan, it’s Teeny Higginbotham. After all, U.Va. has saved her life twice and her eyesight once. And the person at U.Va. she loves the most right now is Liz Courain.

Courain is the director of Volunteer Services, and Higginbotham was one of her volunteers for nine years. When Courain learned 14 months ago that her worker was in failing health because of acute renal failure, with both kidneys barely functioning, she made the decision to donate one of her own kidneys to Higginbotham.

The operation took place Sept. 27, and it was a life-changing experience for both. Despite some rocky times, Higginbotham has been recuperating at home with her family in Madison Heights, just north of Lynchburg. Courain is back at work and ecstatic about being able to help save her friend’s life.

“I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a miracle,” Courain said. “It has been one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had.”

The 57-year-old Higginbotham has struggled with an array of emotions since the operation, especially since she has spent so much time in the hospital, battling a rejection episode. But one thing is clear. “I love Liz and appreciate what she has done,” she said.

Although she has visited with Courain briefly during trips to the hospital, she said she needs a long visit to work through her feelings. “I need to sit down and have a 12-hour conversation with Liz. It would take that long.”

Higginbotham appears finally to be making progress. “The hard part is over. After the operation, I thought it would be a week, but I was in and out of the hospital until mid-November.” But she is doing better, and hoped to be back to normal by Christmas.

Before she had to stop volunteering, Higginbotham made the 55-mile trek to U.Va. twice a week to work at the hospital. She began about the time Courain became director in 1992.

“My loyalty lies with U.Va.,” she explained. In 1986, faced with a brain tumor, she was told by doctors at another hospital that they could not help her. “God sent me to U.Va.,” she recalled, “and U.Va. saved my life. They went after it – and got it.”

She later lost her eyesight, however, and went through “white cane lessons.” She remembers it as a period of personal hell. But U.Va. again came to the rescue. “Ophthalmology got my eyesight back. That’s why I love that hospital – for all that it can do.”

“Everyone I encountered was special,” she said. “I could not believe the amount of support we got from the workers. I was just overwhelmed.”

Her family also has been a great source of support. Her son Bill, 29, and daughter, Jill, 27, and her husband, Lewis — “the most blessed man you would ever meet” — have helped to nurse her back to health.

Although Courain did not know Higginbotham socially, she worked closely with her for nine years. “Teeny is an exceptional person,” Courain said. “She gives time for staff and patients with love and enthusiasm. And she loves our staff.”

Courain’s thoughts about donating began in November 2000, when Higginbotham told her she would be resigning. “I was disturbed,” Courain said. “After she left my office, my thought was that someone should step forward to donate. A little voice in my head said ‘why not you?’ I couldn’t get it out of my head.” She believes what she heard was the “voice of God.”

“I began to do research. I went to Body Talk, talked to nurses and learned until I became comfortable,” she said. “I also went to my own doctor, my husband, supervisor and colleagues. Everyone said they would support me.”

Courain, 46, said the decision to donate ultimately wasn’t difficult. “It’s a cause I have always believed in,” she explained, adding that she is a regular blood donor and is on the list to donate blood marrow. When she was in college, she went door-to-door asking people for cornea-donation pledges. “To me, donations are the ultimate we can do for one another,” she said.

After the decision was made, Courain called the Higginbothams to ask if she and her husband could visit them at their home. “I told them, ‘I have a surprise for you.’ The visit was on the Thursday after Christmas, Dec. 28, 2000.

“She was speechless,” Courain recalls. “It was an emotional evening, and we went home without knowing her decision. ... A few days later, she called and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

Soon after, Courain and the Higginbothams attended a class to learn about the issues involved with transplantation. The process, which included extensive testing, started on Valentine’s Day and lasted until the transplant.

At no time did Courain have second thoughts. “In fact, the only hard thing was not knowing if it would happen or when. The testing and medical care wasn’t hard or frightening,” she said.

Her surgery, performed by Dr. Robert Sawyer, took six hours, and she was in the hospital for 212 days and away from work for three weeks. Higginbotham’s surgeon was Dr. Timothy Pruett, and she initially was in the hospital for 17 days, but had to return later.

Courain said there are two things her experience can teach others. First, the fact that you don’t have to be related to a person to donate.

Second, she said, people can learn that living donors make the actual transplant of a kidney so much better. The two surgeons’ work is parallel as they orchestrate the surgeries, she said, and the kidney never stops being a kidney. “Otherwise,” she said, “the transplant team has to get the kidney going again, and it can be hard on the recipient.”

Courain said her example of donating a kidney has already had an effect. “A woman has already come to me to ask about the experience,” she said. “She told me ‘I’m considering becoming a donor.’”

Reprinted from the Dec. 17 issue of Link.


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