Nearly 20 years ago when Donna Mason beat breast cancer, she never thought she would end up back in doctors’ offices fighting for her life again.
“It’s almost to that point where you think, ‘This isn’t fair, I don’t want to do this again,” Mason said. “I’d done my fighting, and now I can’t help but think, ‘Why me?’”
Mason, 68, who works at Salty Paws Veterinary Hospital in Yorktown, was diagnosed with kidney disease eight years ago. Since then, Mason said the disease has progressed slowly, but this past year her kidneys have started functioning at dangerously low levels.
So low that Mason is now on dialysis and is waiting to get a new kidney.
“I remember the doctor telling me, ‘This is where you’re headed and no matter what you do, this is probably what’s going to happen to you,’” Mason said.
“I mean, what do you do when your doctor tells you that you’re going to lose your kidney? You cry.”
For a while, Mason had been trying to stave off dialysis for as long as possible. The procedure keeps a patient’s body in balance by providing functions that a healthy kidney would perform, such as removing waste and controlling blood pressure, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Each treatment takes about 3½ hours, requiring Mason to sit while her blood is filtered through a fistula in her arm, which acts as an artery. While the process isn’t painful, it can still be exhausting — and it is a sign that Mason’s kidneys are only getting worse.
A transplant is Mason’s best chance to get off dialysis. She is on a national donor list, but the wait can take years, she said. Mason has even worn an “I need a kidney” T-shirt in her quest to find someone who will donate an organ and save her life.
“It’s scary for someone, I know that. It’s a big step but it is something I hope can happen,” she said.
Mason considers herself lucky enough to have multiple people offer to donate their kidney to her; however, so far each person has had a complication in one form or another that has prevented them from doing so.
Julie Stizel, 42, was the first person to offer Mason a kidney. Stizel said that as a surgical technologist at a hospital in Ohio, she is familiar with the results of kidney failure.
“I see it in surgery everyday, cutting limbs off of people and other things. I don’t want to see that happen to anybody that I love,” she said.
Stizel grew up with Mason, who was Stizel’s babysitter. When Stizel read about Mason’s situation on Facebook, Stizel didn’t think twice about offering to be a donor.
After going through the process to test whether Stizel was a donor match, her doctor found an ovarian cyst and advised her not to go through with the procedure.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Stizel said. “I knew I was taking a lifeline from her, it was something that had been planned out and now I couldn’t help her.”
Randy Gilpin, one of Mason’s three adopted children, also volunteered to become a donor. Gilpin went through a series of tests at the Virginia Commonwealth Medical Center, but during a CT scan doctors discovered that he had a kidney stone, which meant he couldn’t be a donor, either.
After two other potential donors were rejected for health reasons, Mason said the process has become discouraging.
“You get hyped up, and then it’s taken away,” she said. “But I just have to remember how lucky I am that I’ve been able to touch people’s lives in such a way that they would want to do something like this for me. For someone to care that much, it keeps me positive.”
However, the process to find a donor continues. Recently one of Mason’s former neighbors started testing and will soon find out if he will be eligible for the transplant procedure.
But until she knows for sure, Mason has to continue waiting, going to dialysis twice a week and hoping for something good to happen.
While Mason knows how significant the procedure is for a donor, her volunteers also know how important it is to her.
“It’s one thing to give a Christmas gift or a birthday gift,” Stizel said. “But this is another human being that you’re giving the gift of life. You’re giving them another chance.”