BAR HARBOR — Wendy Littlefield is taking time off from her job at Mount Desert Island High School to have surgery this week at Maine Medical Center in Portland. The purpose of the surgery is to donate one of her kidneys to someone in need.
“That’s going to be someone’s mother or brother or child,” she said in an interview before the surgery. The recipient is unknown to her. Littlefield elected to be an “altruistic donor,” meaning she did not have a particular recipient in mind. Her healthy kidney will go to someone on a waiting list who she doesn’t know, but is matched medically.
“Really it’s about honoring my daughter.” Littlefield’s daughter Ashleigh died in 2010 of a pulmonary embolism, with no symptoms, at the age of 18. According to Littlefield, Ashleigh had been “intrigued by organ donation and had said she wanted to do that,” ever since her childhood friend Jina had died, having been hit by a car in 2005.
Later in 2011, Littlefield watched her friend Paula Dowsland worry about the health of her seven-year-old daughter with kidney problems. The daughter, Kylie, received a kidney in 2011 and her health improved. Now 14, Littlefield said, “Kylie is an amazing… healthy young lady who lives life to the fullest.”
All these experiences came together to make Littlefield consider organ donation. She learned that she could be an altruistic donor, donating a healthy organ to someone on a waiting list who she doesn’t know, but is matched medically. She filled out the application and waited. She underwent medical tests, and was matched to a recipient. She said it was amazing that “there’s someone out there that matches me so close that we can share an organ. And we’re not even related.”
Finally the surgery was scheduled.
“It’s overwhelming because it’s getting real,” she said a week before the surgery. But she expresses faith in her doctor, and in the Maine Transplant Program run by Maine Medical Center. She calls Maine Transplant “an amazing organization. They’ve all made it feel more right.”
In addition to Kylie and her own daughter Ashleigh, Littlefield said she also found inspiration in her friend Lori Bartlett.
Bartlett became a living donor, donating a kidney to her father, Stephen Siegwarth, in October of last year.
Bartlett wrote about her experience on her Facebook page, noting “so many acts of kindness” she witnessed in the hospital.
“A husband donated part of his liver to his wife who had liver failure…She was doing awesome! She was racing herself down the hallway past my room and feeling great but her donor husband (in the room beside me) was not feeling so great,” she wrote.
“I hear this is typical, the donor recipient feels much better after surgery than does the donor. It’s because the donor was healthy and the recipient wasn’t, and they just received something that makes their body function better almost immediately.
“So I’m not just glad I helped my dad, but I helped move someone up on the donor list by getting my dad off of it.”
Bartlett told the Islander she is proud of what Littlefield is doing, almost one year to the day after her own surgery.
“She’s giving someone life,” Bartlett said.
Both women want to make people aware that becoming a living donor is a possibility. “I would tell people to go in with an open mind, and go in with the attitude of making a difference,” said Littlefield. “And then it isn’t a hard process.”
For herself, Littlefield expects to be out of work for a couple weeks, and “pretty close to normal within a month.”
One thing that will help her recover is the knowledge that she has made a difference to someone, in memory of her daughter.
“Continuing to do things to keep her memory alive is important,” Littlefield said. “And we can make a difference doing small things. You’ve got to start small… and it will catch on.”