New Orleans native, Rhonda Lee made the life-changing decision to become a living donor for her mother, Laura Wallace, in 2002. Due to successful transplantation, the mother-daughter duo will be celebrating their 20th anniversary on November 25, 2022.
In 1982, Laura, Rhonda's mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when Rhonda was in middle school. In the summer of 2000, Laura suffered a physical crisis due to lithium toxicity in the medications she had been taking for 14 years as a result, her kidneys were stressed. "We had no idea," Rhonda says. "I thought she was depressed [as a result of her mental illness], her symptoms mimicked a depressed person, she seemed sad, isolating herself and sleeping". The family encouraged her to go to the doctor to make sure things were ok after the symptoms persisted. A series of tests were done, and the doctor told them that Laura needed to get to the emergency room immediately. Within two weeks, Laura was placed on dialysis.
Laura was on dialysis for two years. At the end of 2002, she started having complications with infections and clogging of the graft. In order for Laura to get dialysis with her complications different sites were explored like her arms, stomach, and neck, to find good vein sites. However, doctors suggested that the best alternative was to get a transplant.
The doctors suggested they start asking family members to see who would be a match and willing to donate but Rhonda immediately chimed "Mom, I'll do it" and her only question was "can I live with one kidney? If I can live with one kidney, I'm good".
After a series of tests, Rhonda got a call from a nurse trying to reach her mom and that was the moment Rhonda knew "you want to tell me we're a match, don't you?" "Ya'll are a perfect match" replied the nurse. After two weeks, Rhonda went to Ochsner Medical Center on November 25, 2002 to donate her kidney to her mother.
Although she didn't have to stay long in the hospital post-transplantation, as a federal worker Rhonda was grateful to benefit from the Organ Donor Leave Act that was signed in 1999 by President Clinton. "This law amends section 6327 of title 5, United States Code, to increase the amount of paid time off allotted for Federal employees to serve as organ donors from 7 days to 30 days each calendar year (CHCO Council)".
On June 2, 2022, Governor Edwards signed the Living Donor Protection Act into law for the state of Louisiana. The Living Donor Protection Act will prohibit disability, life, and long-term care insurers from discriminating against living donors through policy conditions, acceptance, or pricing based solely on the person's living donor status. With Governor Edward's signature, Louisiana becomes the 27th state to enact such protections for living donors.
"People don't know the value that being a living donor can have for someone's life. Especially for African Americans. We're not aware [of the possibilities]" says Rhonda. After the transplant, Laura was able to do more with her family and regained the quality of life she had wanted.
Rhonda Lee was inspired and wanted to give back to the community. As a caregiver for her mother, she wanted to share the hopeful side of being a caregiver for someone with a mental illness. In 2012, she started to volunteer for the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). She went from taking courses to facilitating a support group and teaching a program called Family-to-Family that helps others understand their loved one's mental illnesses. In 2014, Rhonda published a novel titled, For the Love of Bipolar as a way to have more accountability through her mother's journey and struggles.
"My hope is for the mental health industry/community to lessen the burden stigma it has on those who live with mental health conditions and that the process could be similar to what I experienced with my mom and her transplant. Every phase of what we went through was an open book, with no restrictions or roadblocks. I hope that we understand the importance of saving a life without the red tape". "Family support, knowledge and understanding is critical for the wellness of the patient."
After complications with COVID-19 in May of 2021, Laura decided to move into a nursing home where she lived minutes away from her family. Although it was a hard decision, Rhonda says it was the best decision. "If it wasn't for the transplant, she wouldn't be here," says Rhonda.
To those considering becoming an organ donor, Rhonda advises to "go with your heart, get educated, go with confidence and without fear about giving life to someone. You are giving another individual another chance at life and helping them fulfill their dreams".
As they're about to celebrate their 20th anniversary, Rhonda says her mother Laura is the first one to say "our anniversary is coming up". Rhonda recalls her mother's words "what would I have done without you? My saving angel".
Editors note: At the time of this publication Laura Wallace sadly passed away early morning on November 24, 2022. Rhonda's gift had a 20-year impact on her mother's life and we celebrate that gift. We send our condolences to Rhonda Lee and her family at this time and we continue the fight against kidney disease. If interested in purchasing Rhonda Lee's book For the Love of Bipolar you can do so here.