Faith McKinney was 33 when she received a cornea transplant. Born with a hereditary eye disorder, keratoconus, McKinney’s vision in her left eye was completely blurry. After receiving what she called “a second chance of life” after the family of a young boy opted to donate his organs, McKinney knew she wanted to give back in the same way.
“I couldn’t imagine the anguish they would go through to say yes [to organ donation],” McKinney said.
“I didn’t think that I would do it in that position, at that time. I thought those people had to be rich, as in having an overflow of abundance because they were willing to do that, and for me, it opened my eyes that that was an abundance I would love to have.”
After learning her cousin’s husband, Steve, needed a kidney just over a decade later, McKinney knew this was the opportunity to give back she’d been searching for.
While McKinney’s story — being both a tissue recipient and a living organ donor — is rare, the Indiana Donor Network said it is on track to meet its annual donation goal thanks to the generosity of Hoosiers. Steve Johnson, chief operating officer of the Indiana Donor Network, said 818 Hoosiers have received life-saving organ transplants this year.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — dying from the virus makes one ineligible to donate — the numbers increase annually, up 50% this year from 2017. Moreover, Johnson said, Indiana broke a record this year for registering donors. This is the first year the state has had more than 4 million people registered, making Indiana one of the best in the nation for organ donor status.
“The goal is to just save more lives every single year,” Johnson said. “One life is someone’s mother, father, grandfather, and that’s what I always tell the team. Every single person we’re able to transplant is another life saved.”
Johnson cites education and marketing campaigns — including a partnership between Indiana Donor Network and the Indianapolis Colts — for the increase in donors. However, he also credits stories such as McKinney’s for changing the rhetoric surrounding organ donations.
Despite agreeing to be a donor when she got her license, McKinney never really thought about what it meant to be a donor. When she knew she wanted to donate her kidney, however, she said the gravity of the situation became real to her, and her parents tried to talk her out of it.
“My parents did not want me to donate,” McKinney said. “They were concerned because I have a daughter with special needs and worried what would happen if my daughter ever needed a kidney. I knew this was something that I felt strongly about, and it was something that I couldn’t explain in a way they would understand. It was something I needed to do.”
McKinney reflected on the family of the young boy who donated a cornea when she needed one and thought about what motivated her to donate her kidney to a family member. She said she felt in her heart that, should her children need a transplant in the future, someone would step up and donate.
The donation process was exhaustive. She went through months of physical exams, blood tests and worked to help her family understand why she was opting to donate. She often tells people thinking about becoming a living organ donor that she learned a lot about herself in the process.
“One thing I learned is what it really meant to be committed,” McKinney said. “What it means to see something through from start to finish that wasn’t easy. You learn what it means to follow through and do something that most people wouldn’t normally do.”
While Steve died a few years later following a heart attack, McKinney said the donation allowed him to spend years with his family, free from dialysis.
To Johnson, that’s the beautiful — and “sacred” — thing about organ donation: It gives someone a second chance at life. While the Indiana Donor Network doesn’t have a numerical goal for annual transplants, he said saving a single life has a monumental impact on a family and community.
Nearly 10 years after she donated her kidney, McKinney continues to spread the word about organ donation and the impact it has not just on the recipient, but the donor, as well.
“I wanted to do it for me,” McKinney said. “I’ve always known, before I died, that I wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life, and I knew [organ donation] is what I wanted to do.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.