Q: On your 10th anniversary of your kidney transplant, how are you feeling (emotionally, first, then physically)?
Carter: The longer I live, the more I understand the great gift life really is. It sounds cliche, but there are so many who don’t get the chance to grow older and I see my opportunity to live as a humbling experience. Physically I feel great.
Q: What do you do now to stay healthy?
Carter: I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, am considering becoming a vegetarian, and remind myself to drink plenty of fluids every day. I’m not much of an athlete, but my lab work always improves after moderate exercise like walking.
Q: Are you always wary about your donated kidney failing or causing rejection?
Carter: Of course. But when that time comes, I can’t complain. This little organ has given me the chance to excel in my profession, find the love of my life, and give me the chance to freeze my embryos (who are still stored in their keg). I can’t thank it enough, regardless of how long it works.
Q: You interviewed my late great friend Neil Millman about his kidney transplant 20 years ago about how he believed his cancer may have been exacerbated by the pills he had to take to stave off organ rejection. Does that worry you too? [You can read her HuffPost piece about Neil here.]
Carter: I try not to worry about much of anything. Knowing I should have died at 27, and am now 42, I owe part of that to those meds. However, Neil was a great champion of encouraging researchers not to settle for what we have now. Transplantation is a miracle, but Neil is a symbol of how it is not yet a perfect system.
Q: Ten years ago, Richard Eldredge wrote a fine profile of you. In a follow up story in 2003, he wrote that you had a twice-daily regimen of 12 pills to survive. How many pills do you need to take now and how often?
Carter: I take 10 pills in the morning, and 6 pills at night. I call it my Kidney Cocktail.
Q: If you hadn’t gotten the kidney transplant in 2002, how long do you think you could have survived?
Carter: I responded well to dialysis, so if that had continued I would still be here. But with very limited activity.
Q: How is your donor Pam Price doing?
Carter: She’s great. Works with troubled youth and does search and rescue in her spare time. A true angel.
Q: And how do you like your new job?
Carter: Love it. I get to write and anchor news at a higher level, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. And the All News 106.7 crew is a great team to work with.
Q: What do you miss most about the Bert Show?
Carter: The listeners. Interacting with the Atlanta community was my favorite thing about that job.
Q: And how does it feel to return to the Cumulus offices in a different capacity?
Carter: It’s like I never left. Old friends from Q100 and 99X are still in these halls, and we’ve been friends for so long it’s like being home.
Q: And how crowded is it now that Kicks and All News is there, on top of the Bone, 680/The Fan, Q100 AND Rock 100.5?
Carter: Oddly not as bad as I expected. The studios are segmented in such a way that we aren’t all over each other, but have access to whatever station we need. Very much like cul-de-sac, we see each other but still maintain our independence.
This is lengthy, but here is the original story about her nearly ten years ago:
‘I’M THE GIRL IN THE BUBBLE’
Melissa Carter’s battle with kidney failure played out in 2002 for her thousands of morning radio listeners
By RICHARD L. ELDREDGE
Melissa Carter’s hand trembled as she hung up the phone. Just after 10 a.m., her tiny office zoomed in on her as she battled back panic and tried to make sense of what her doctor had just told her. “Your test results are back. Go to the Piedmont Hospital ER immediately. Don’t drive.” Carter, the Q100 news director and “Bert Show” morning program co-host, pulled producer Tami D’Addio aside and quietly asked her for a lift. Minutes later, Carter and D’Addio burst through the doors of the crowded ER. Doctors were waiting. They whisked Carter to a cubicle. Nurses brought her blankets and took her blood. Carter waited for someone to tell her what was going on. She tried to keep cool so D’Addio wouldn’t be alarmed. Why won’t someone tell me anything? Carter wondered. Why can’t I stop shaking?
Melissa Carter’s voice and face have become increasingly familiar to Atlantans in the last 21 months. As a member of the high-profile Q100 “Bert Show, ” her image is on billboards, CD covers and TV commercials. She was the female grand marshal in Atlanta’s Gay Pride parade in June. This fall, Creative Loafing voted her “Best Radio DJ.” Listeners have gotten to know the four co-hosts and their personal lives. They know that Carter’s blood runs orange for her alma mater, the University of Tennessee, and its Volunteers. That she loves Xena and “Star Trek” Capt. Katherine Janeway. That late at night she craves Wendy’s drive-through.
And that giving up the latter suddenly became a life-and-death necessity.
After the phone call from her doctor and her race to the ER, Carter learned that her long-standing kidney problems had taken a dire turn. Her organs were being poisoned with toxic levels of phosphorous, sodium, protein and potassium — putting her at immediate risk for a heart attack. She would need a kidney transplant and, until then, undergo dialysis treatment three times a week.
“That day was a turning point for me in so many ways, ” the Columbia, Tenn., native says. “I had to completely relearn how to live or I was going to die.”
In person, the 1992 UT communications grad’s warm intensity shows in almost constant eye contact. Her thin frame favors blue jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers. At 32, Carter seems too vibrant to be one of the 200,000 Americans who suffer from chronic kidney failure. Many are older and have other health problems, such as diabetes, and are not candidates for a transplant.
Carter knew the numbers were daunting. Nationwide, 27,000 patients await a kidney. About 11,000 receive one each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Last year, 2,025 people died waiting.
For the past year, Carter lingered in a kind of chaotic stasis, her quality of life affected each time she raised a fork or tipped a glass. It affected everyone in her life and dominated her every waking hour. Carter knew her future would be determined by the willingness of another person to relinquish a body part.
Most people who struggle through this process do so anonymously. Carter, though, is a bona fide personality on an increasingly popular radio show, especially among listeners 18-34. And her private health drama would play out much more publicly than most — one followed by thousands of listeners, a handful of news outlets and a even a governor.
High blood pressure
Carter’s kidney problems began in 1997. Hospital tests revealed that body aches and congestion were symptoms of something far more serious than the flu. Her blood pressure hovered at a scary 210 over 140. Doctors found blood and protein in her urine, and her kidneys worked at only 80 percent. They prescribed medicine to reduce her blood pressure, a leading cause of kidney failure.
By the fall of 2001, Carter had suffered stresses beyond her increasing kidney problems. Her father had died of cancer in August. The demands of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks compounded her dual duties as Q100 news director and morning show co-host. She was trying to deliver solid shows, big ratings and media attention.
She grew increasingly self-conscious about her co-workers noticing the dark circles under her eyes. She routinely discussed her private life on the air, but Carter hadn’t shared her health status with anyone at the station. She was anxious about divulging something so scary and personal. She was even unsure of her own feelings.
She was being forced to alter her diet radically — in fact, her whole way of living. She was angry, wanting someone to blame.
After a few months, though, she couldn’t hide her fatigue. Carter talked to her boss, Bert Weiss, and then the rest of the show’s cast. They decided to include Carter’s medical crisis as an ongoing part of the broadcast.
“I was hesitant at first, ” Carter says. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to hear this?’ But our show is about us being honest with listeners, talking about our lives, and this is where mine is right now.”
Carter underwent her first dialysis treatment a week before Christmas 2001. During dialysis, two needles — each 2 inches long and about as wide as a ballpoint pen ink tube — are inserted into patient’s arm. One tube runs from the arm to a beeping apparatus that resembles a swirling Slurpee machine, except the fluid being sloshed about is blood being cleaned of impurities before being sent back into the patient through a second tube. The process takes about three hours and has to be performed three times a week.
Without the treatment, Carter would die within weeks. With it, she might live to be 50.
Siblings tend to be good kidney transplant matches. Doctors deemed Carter’s sister, Melanie, ineligible because she had survived ovarian cancer. Her brother, Michael, stepped forward in January, and doctors viewed him as a stronger candidate.
But a routine ultrasound test revealed a small cyst on Michael’s kidney. Though benign, it was enough: Doctors won’t remove a kidney from a patient with a compromised organ.
Instead, Carter’s name went into a statewide computer database that connects to the national United Network of Organ Sharing waiting list.
Carter was crushed.
“My best shot at a donor had been turned down, ” Carter says. “I knew dialysis was now going to be a permanent part of my life.”
Carter had surgery on her left arm in April. Doctors sewed a 10-inch oblong dialysis shunt underneath the skin from her elbow to her armpit. It serves as an artificial vein to give dialysis needles easy access to her bloodstream.
Dialysis puts additional strain on the body’s other organs, especially the heart. The wait for a kidney can be two to 10 years. Some patients’ bodies simply give out before a match is found.
Carter feared she’d never find a donor, even after more than 30 listeners — complete strangers — offered to be tested.
Months later in Nashville, Carter’s mother, Mildred “Millie Pete” Carter, sent out an e-mail update on Melissa’s condition to the extended family. Across the country, Carter’s second cousin read the news and sent her own response — an e-mail to Carter, out of the blue.
“I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her since junior high and here she was, saying she wanted to be tested as a donor, ” Carter says. Initial tests were encouraging and Carter’s cousin — Pam Price of Bend, Ore. — was told to go to Atlanta in November for a second set of tests.
“I won’t let myself get excited about this, ” Carter told herself. “It would just be too far to fall emotionally if it doesn’t happen.”
A time of stress
The Eleven50 nightclub in Midtown was percolating with excitement on Sept. 30. The club was having a release party for “The Best of the Bert Show” CD, featuring wacky bits from the show’s first year.
Carter felt anything but wacky. Listeners who showed up thrust CDs and pens at her for autographs. When someone inevitably asked how she was doing, Carter smiled weakly.
“Fine, thanks, ” she replied, feeling anything but.
As she turned away, Carter’s face immediately clouded over. Nearby, a table of smokers was turning the air blue. The scent of last night’s stale beer lingered. Carter did not want to be here.
Two young men shyly approached, clutching large photos of Carter riding as a grand marshal in Atlanta’s Gay Pride parade in June. They also went to UT and another photo shows them holding a sign at the parade that reads: “Gay Vols Love Melissa!” A woman in her late 20s, dressed in fresh-from-work business attire, stood nearby, nursing a cocktail and staring in Carter’s direction. This is the person Q100 listeners have come to know as “Not Lisa, ” the Bert Show’s nickname for Carter’s girlfriend who, because of her position at a conservative corporation, fears publicly disclosing her sexuality.
Later, sitting in a dim corner of Eleven50 on a high-backed black couch and cradling a cranberry juice and 7-Up, Carter was spent.
She had been angry for the past 12 hours. She learned early in the morning from a TV news broadcast that Piedmont Hospital doctors and her health insurer, Aetna, were ending their association Oct. 31. For Carter, it was the equivalent of a cruel Halloween trick. Her cousin Pam was due at Piedmont on Nov. 4 for two days of tests. If doctors gave Pam the green light as a donor, Carter had been scheduled to receive a transplant at Piedmont on Nov. 8.
Carter had spent much of the day on the phone to Piedmont Hospital and Aetna. No one, she said, had been able to give her any definitive answers on how she might be affected by the changes.
The next morning shortly after 8, Carter went on the air with her Aetna-Piedmont problem. “It’s all so unfair, ” she told listeners. “I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and yesterday, that light was turned out.”
Carter’s angry words dissolved into tears. Fans called in with words of encouragement. Other Piedmont Hospital and Aetna patients phoned to thank Carter for alerting them to the change.
When Carter got off the air at 10 a.m., 51 e-mails awaited, 11 phone calls (two from the news departments of WSB-TV and WXIA-TV) and one from an aide to Gov. Roy Barnes, who knew of a new law that would help. Listeners, meanwhile, called state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine’s office with questions.
Representatives for Aetna and Piedmont Hospital later said Carter’s surgery and coverage were never at risk. Piedmont said Carter’s surgeon opted to remain in the Aetna program. Carter’s insurer maintained that like other folks being treated for an ongoing illness or pregnancy she fell under a “continuance of care” law enacted this year in Georgia.
An agony of waiting
Nov. 5 — Election Day 2002 — was a big news day. But Carter was unfocused and sketchy in the Q100 studio. She had difficulty concentrating on anything but her health crisis. When she entered and left the radio studio, she used her long sleeves to touch the doorknob. A colleague had a cold and a fever. If Carter caught the bug, her probable transplant three days from now would be off.
On the air, Carter sunnily reported that “Today is the day! The day we find out for sure whether or not Pam will be my donor.” She was introspective during station breaks, saying little while she gnawed Starburst fruit chews and sipped water from her “Osbournes” coffee mug.
But at Piedmont that afternoon, she learned it might not happen that day, after all.
And the day got worse with a trip to the place that made her feel the most vulnerable: her dialysis clinic. In the large, bright room, 25 other patients were hooked up to machines, all beeping loudly. Nurses inserted needles into Carter’s shunt. Bright red blood flowed from her body into the filtration machine and back into her shunt. After the treatment, Carter found it curious that she had received no cellphone calls all afternoon, except check-ins from Not Lisa. She interpreted this as bad news. And by the time she got to her Sandy Springs apartment, she was convinced that Pam had been rejected as a donor and was just waiting until she got home to break the bad news.
Cramping from dialysis and exhausted, Carter went into the bathroom and began crying. She had tried not to get her hopes up, lectured herself endlessly against becoming mesmerized by that inviting light at the end of the tunnel. She told herself, “OK, cry now. Get it out of your system before Pam gets home. You don’t want to make her feel any worse about this than she already will.”
Carter almost didn’t hear the phone ring.
Outside Piedmont Hospital, Pam Price struggled with a voice-programmed cellphone. She was so emotional that she couldn’t utter “Melissa Carter” into it. Carter’s best friend, Joe Grise, finally grabbed back his phone, said the name and handed it back to her.
Carter wiped her eyes and answered the phone.
“We’re a go! We’re a go!” Price screeched. “They’re saying we couldn’t be a better match even if we were sisters.”
“Are you sure?” Carter asked, pleading desperately.
“Yes!” Price replied excitedly.
Carter hung up the phone.
“Thank you, God, ” she said to the empty apartment.
Surgery is imminent
Price stared glumly at her tray of low-sodium chicken broth and orange Jell-O. The date was Nov. 7, the eve of the surgery. Price lay in bed in the Piedmont renal transplant ward. The 37-year-old was upbeat. She didn’t view her kidney donation as “any big thing, if it helps Melissa.”
In Oregon, she works as a counselor with troubled kids and substance abusers and is a member of the area’s mountain search and rescue team. Price is robust and athletic, and she loves the outdoors. She has a spirited, hearty laugh and bounds across a room as if conquering a daunting hike.
“You have this life for a reason, ” she said plainly. “You have to give it meaning. You don’t get many opportunities like this in your lifetime to help someone on this level. You have to take advantage of them.”
The next morning, just before 8, Carter was on a gurney waiting to be wheeled into transplant surgery. Price had already been in surgery for about 30 minutes.
Feeling the effects of the sedative, Carter talked in circles about Halloween and “feeling good.” Not Lisa stood over her, crying.
At 10, Carter’s mother, brother, Price’s stepfather, Not Lisa and Grise sat anxiously in the waiting room. A nurse arrived to tell them that Price was out of surgery and could see visitors.
In between bouts of tears, Not Lisa was distracted by her cellphone. She quietly gave friends updates and dabbed the tears on her face.
Finally, at 11:30 Carter’s surgeon, John Whelchel, bounded in, his brown cowboy boots covered by blue surgical booties.
He was smiling.
“The kidney began working almost immediately, ” he said.
The group burst into tears and hugs. Not Lisa was no longer concerned about controlling her tears.
“I won’t know how to act now, ” she admitted. “We’re getting all this time given back to us.”
Recovering at home
Two weeks later, a familiar voice returned to Q100 airwaves via a phone call. “I’m feeling really good, ” Carter told listeners from her apartment. “Pam, my mother and my sister are all here with me. It’s like the ‘Ya-Ya Sisterhood.’ ”
Today, Carter remains sequestered at home. Price has made a full recovery and is back home in Oregon. Carter and her cousin communicate frequently by e-mail. Twice a week, Carter visits the hospital to have blood drawn. She takes a steroid and other medicines so her immune system won’t attack the new kidney. The drugs leave her susceptible to illness.
She’s itchy to see new “Harry Potter, ” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Trek” movies but knows she can’t venture out to cold- and flu-infested theaters yet. She and Price are planning a vacation together in Oregon next summer.
“For now, I’m the girl in the bubble, and I’m just fine with that, ” Carter says. “Christmas came early for me this year.”
Carter’s body is accepting the new kidney so well that doctors said she’ll be able to return to work a month earlier than predicted, in mid-January.
She’ll return to a show still popular for zany phone practical jokes, tales of spousal cheating and edgy sex talk. But amid the wackiness will be a new woman — a better woman, Carter hopes — sitting at her microphone in the Q100 studio.
“This has changed me forever, ” she said. “My hope is to be as strong in character and in integrity when well as I was when I was sick.”