Allison Batson gives a pep talk to the recent Auburn University graduate, new to her floor at the hospital.
Clay Taber faces a rare illness ravaging his kidneys. He’s just 22 years old.
“How are you feeling?” the nurse asks. “Can I do anything for you? If you ever want to talk, let me know.”
In him, Batson sees flashes of her own son. They quickly bond.
Taber talks about his girlfriend; he’s about to put a down payment on a ring.
This is no way for him to start his married life, Batson, a nurse at Emory University Hospital, and mother to four children, thinks to herself. He won’t even be able to go on a honeymoon.
Without a kidney transplant, Batson knows, Taber will need three-times-a-week dialysis, severely limiting his quality of life.
Batson can’t fight the urge to help. But she’s a nurse. He’s the patient. Nurses don’t donate their organs to patients. In fact, the American Nurses Association does not know of a single such case.
But in this moment, Batson simply sees a young man who needs a kidney.
When Taber returns almost a year later for a follow-up visit in August 2011, she comments to his family they should keep her in mind as a potential donor.
Taber’s family already had a willing donor in their immediate family. Still, they consider the statement exceptionally kind. It brings Taber to tears.
As the months pass, the significance of the gesture magnifies.
In October, doctors inform Taber’s mother, Sandra Taber, she can’t donate a kidney for health reasons.
Quietly weeping outside her son’s room, Sandra Taber lifts her head and hears that same warm voice.
“My offer still stands,” Batson says.
A crude connection?
The day after he graduated from Auburn in August 2010, Taber woke up with night sweats.
He’d swum near Panama City, Fla., three weeks earlier, not long after the massive BP oil spill spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. At first, the timing seemed inconsequential.
Taber thought he was just nervous about asking his girlfriend to marry him, or perhaps worried about finding a job.
So after graduation, he returned to the Florida coast, this time to relax, celebrate and feel better.
But he couldn’t shake the night sweats. And he suffered frequent chills, and a fever. He had a bad cough, too.
He returned to his parents’ home in Columbus and went to the doctor.
He tested positive for mononucleosis, but blood tests suggested trouble with his kidneys.
Diagnosed with Goodpastures syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease affecting the lungs and kidneys, Taber was admitted to Emory University Hospital. Doctors say it’s possible his illness could be linked to exposure to oily Gulf waters because one trigger is contact with chemicals found in crude oil.
At Emory, Taber underwent plasmapheresis, a process designed to filter harmful antibodies from the blood.
While at Emory for six weeks, he passed the time watching Auburn football games, or anything about college football. His room was festooned with Auburn paraphernalia — signed photographs of players, flags, orange pompoms.
An advocate’s impact
Batson, a stay-at-home mom when her children were young, began a second career in health care in 2004 after she watched her mother succumb to an infection after hip replacement surgery.
Frustrated by a lack of information from the medical teams, a patient advocate was called in.
“She got all of the doctors together and she said, ‘I will stay with ‘Mom’ while you get your questions answered,’” said Batson, 48, who lives in Lilburn. “I’ll never forget it. She said ‘Mom’ and not ‘patient.’
“When I went back to see my mom, the patient advocate was with my mom who was in a coma and she was stroking my mother’s hair. ... I thought, if I could help one person like this, I want to do it.”
Batson started working as a patient advocate at Emory University hospital, and began nursing school.
At nursing school, Batson was warned against getting too close to her patients. She and other nursing students were advised not to provide personal contact information.
But Batson also remembered learning it was OK to cry with patients. Recently, when a man on her floor died of liver failure, Batson wept like a child.
‘Made you feel special’
When Taber appeared on her floor at Emory that year, Batson was struck by his optimism. He had faith he would get better, that everything was going to work out. Taber prayed daily and kept his Bible on his rolling tray.
Taber felt comfortable talking to Batson. She was bubbly and warm. Blonde and pretty, she had an easy smile.
“She made you feel special,” recalled Taber. “She seemed to really care about your life and your story.”
He shared with her how he met his girlfriend in a math class at Auburn. Laura was acing the tests. He was struggling. After noticing Laura got an A on an exam, he asked her to tutor him. It was a rainy day outside Parker Hall.
Taber told Batson he was getting ready to propose. Batson suggested he should propose outside Parker Hall — and on a rainy day.
Taber loved the idea.
After several weeks, Taber recovered from Goodpastures, but the illness caused permanent damage to his kidneys. He went home and underwent regular dialysis.
Taber’s mom sent email blasts to everyone she knew in hopes of finding a kidney donor. Before long, she was also undergoing the testing process herself.
A radical idea
The Taber family didn’t know it, but Batson was beginning to turn over a major decision in her mind: donating one of her kidneys to Taber.
The idea was radical. While nurses often donate blood and bone marrow, they typically don’t donate organs to patients. Ethically, they are encouraged to treat all patients equally, and avoid getting too close. Practically, organ donation also involves surgery that can take a nurse out of commission for weeks.
But Batson couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact she did have a kidney to give. And she couldn’t stop thinking about this young patient. She often grew attached to her patients. With this one, she couldn’t let go.
“The circumstances spoke to me. Even before I met him, I heard about this young patient and I thought this could be my child,” she said.
Batson thought about her eldest daughter’s recent wedding. Her daughter, a University of Georgia graduate, met her husband at college, just like Taber.
And while Taber reminded Batson of her own kids, she was also drawn to do something for him because of her father.
In 1995, Jack Shepard suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. While doctors talked about him potentially qualifying to be a liver donor recipient, he was never well enough. He died that year at age 61.
“There was nothing I could do to help my father back then,” said Batson. “This felt like a way of honoring my dad.”
Months after Taber left the hospital, she approached her husband, Darryl Batson, and told him they needed to talk. It was about that young patient who needed a kidney.
“I know it’s in the early stages,” she told her husband, “But for some reason, if it doesn’t work out, what about me?”
Maybe he wouldn’t need a kidney outside his family; maybe Batson wouldn’t be a match.
“But something is speaking to me,” said Batson. “It could be God.”
Darryl Batson didn’t flinch. This was the wife he knew. A woman who immediately got tested as a potential bone marrow donor when a woman in her Sunday school class was diagnosed with leukemia. The woman young people flocked to when she was a youth group leader at their church.
Outside the family, however, some friends were skeptical.
“People said, ‘What if your kids need it some day?’ ”
She pointed out that her family was healthy and that, in contrast, there was “this young man standing in front of me.”
Batson’s husband gave his full support. She later went to her four children, the youngest of whom, Sam, was 16.
She called them together to talk. She explained to them she was considering donating a kidney.
“If any of you don’t want me to do this, I won’t do it,” she told them.
‘No need to wait’
After Taber returned home in October 2010, Batson continued to see him every few months. Sometimes, he went to Emory for check-ups. In February 2011, he was admitted for four days for a sinus infection.
In October, Taber’s mom was ruled out as a donor because the lining of her kidneys was too thin. Taber got on a waiting list for deceased donors.
Batson caught a glimpse of Taber’s mother crying outside her son’s room. She often stepped outside to weep.
It tugged at Batson’s heart.
“It reminded me of the love I have for my children,” said Batson.
Batson told Taber’s mother she would donate her kidney. Taber said he could wait.
“There is no need to wait any longer,” she said. “I am here.”
Taber struggled to find the words.
“This is the most generous, unselfish thing to do,” said Taber. “I feel so blessed you have come into my life. ... You are like another mom to me.”
Batson said she wanted to do it simply because she could.
“I threw the fact that I work here out the window,” said Batson. “I just saw a young man who needed a kidney. And I had a kidney I could give.”
Batson contacted her boss to find out if donating a kidney would pose a conflict of interest. She learned Emory had no policy relating to organ donation. It had never happened before.
Tawanda Austin, director of nursing surgical services, said organ donation by caregivers is not “particularly encouraged,” but is instead regarded as a personal choice.
Batson underwent the process to get tested. Her blood type was O, the same as Taber’s.
When her glucose levels came back high, she insisted she get tested again. In the end, the blood and tissue testing all came back — a perfect match.
She texted Taber updates.
“Clay, I think there may be a glitch. I think I bleed red and black,” the UGA fan joked.
“That’s OK,” he responded. “I think I will bleed a little red and black, too.”
A crowd of family and friends fill a section of the waiting area at Emory Hospital. Batson and Taber pose for photographs.
Taber’s mom embraces Batson. Overwhelmed, Taber’s mother dissolves into tears.
Batson is all smiles. She doesn’t feel nervous. She got a good night’s rest.
The day before her surgery, she passed the time baking cookies for the nurses on her floor.
Before Batson and Taber head into surgery, Batson stands in front of her one-time patient. She takes both of his hands.
“The only thing we are responsible for is being right here,” she tells him. “Once the kidney is transplanted, it is up to your body and God to accept it. No matter what happens. If your body rejects the kidney, I have no regrets. I never will.”
Taber nods his head and cries.
Batson’s surgery is first.
Barking and laughter
The operating room is quiet except for the beeping sound of the instruments, and Adele playing faintly in the background. Batson is positioned on her side. Dr. Nicole Turgeon, the lead surgeon, is part of a team of doctors and nurses in the operating room.
The surgery lasts an hour and a half. After being removed, the kidney is placed in a sterile metal basin filled with ice and handed over to Taber’s surgeon, Dr. Christian Larsen, surgeon-in-chief.
Within minutes he begins the transplant surgery in the operating room next door.
Afterward, Batson and Taber, still groggy, see each other before they are transported to their rooms. Taber grabs Batson’s hand and does his best Georgia Bulldog bark.
“I thought it would do her some good, and me some good, too,” he said.
They head to the seventh floor — 7G, where Batson works as a nurse, but where, on this day, she is a patient.
Over the next couple of days, a stream of visitors pass through their side-by-side rooms, each overlooking the city. Nurses stop by to match a name with a face. Interested doctors visit. Even the CEO of the hospital drops in. Everyone at the hospital, it seems, has heard about the nurse on 7G donating a kidney to a patient.
Two days after the surgery, Batson receives a call from Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter. In February of last year, Walter donated a kidney to one of his players, Kevin Jordan. The surgery took place at Emory; Batson was his nurse.
Walter called to check on Batson.
“I am good,” she tells him. “I am reminiscing how you must have felt. ... Watching you go through it made it easier.”
Batson and Taber go back and forth between their rooms, along with their families. They walk laps together.
It’s hard to differentiate the rooms. Batson has a “save the date” June 9 announcement for Taber and his fiancée’s wedding.
When Taber proposed to his girlfriend, he waited for a rainy day, and proposed in front of Parker Hall, just as Batson suggested.
Early indications suggest the transplant was a success, doctors say.
Batson was discharged Jan. 13. Taber went home two days later.
There were no goodbyes. There was no need.
Taber said the kidney was like a magnet, pulling him closer to Batson.
Batson was no longer his nurse. She was family.
In the United States, about 19 people die each day for lack of a suitable organ transplant, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Some 115,209 Americans are on the national waiting list for an organ. About 79 percent are in need of a kidney.
Most anyone can be a donor by signing up with their state’s organ and tissue donation registry. In Georgia, sign up at www.donatelifegeorgia.org.
Those under 18 may require consent of a parent or guardian, but there are no rules for who is too old to donate. Doctors look at the health of the organ, not the age of the donor.
Donors are disqualified for HIV infection, active cancer and systemic infections, according to HHS.
Donors can also indicate their desire on their driver’s license. HHS also recommends making wishes known to doctors, family and friends, and including the information in personal wills.
Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
How we got the story
Helena Oliviero met Allison Batson and Clay Taber moments before the kidney transplant took place at Emory University Hospital on Jan. 10. Oliviero was given exclusive access to the operating room where Batson underwent surgery. Over the following days, Oliviero returned to Emory hospital to interview Batson and Taber, and observe their recovery. They also helped her recreate scenes and dialogue from earlier stages of their relationship.
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