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A mother's gift: From organ donor to advocate

Health care success stories told by the people who lived them

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A mother's gift: From organ donor to advocate

Kathy Vochoska

Kathy Vochoska (left) with her son Chris and his fiancé Kayleigh

Kathy Vochoska was a card-carrying organ donor. She'd checked the box on her driver's license application years ago. But, she never gave it much thought.

That is, until the issue hit home – and someone she dearly loved needed an organ.

Together, with support from a UnitedHealthcare transplant program, the Vochoska family found a way through. Now, Kathy is committed to helping other families who are still waiting for that potentially lifesaving gift.

A family shocked

The Vochoskas' ordeal began in 2010, when Kathy's son, Chris, was 20 years old. One morning, he woke up with extremely swollen ankles. That prompted a trip to the family's doctor and later a specialist.

It wasn't long before they got the call. "They said he was in kidney failure," Kathy recalls. The news was both terrifying and confusing. Chris hadn't seemed sick. And, kidney problems didn't run in the family. "He was so young. It was just a shock."

When the family learned more about his diagnosis, it began to make sense. But, it wasn't any less distressing. Chris had IgA nephropathy. This is a disorder that can quietly damage the kidneys over years – and can occur at any age. And, doctors don't know what triggers the condition.

By the time it was found in Chris, his kidneys were barely working, Kathy says. "As a mom, it's heart-wrenching to see your son go through something like that."

One primary job of the kidneys is to clean the blood. When they fail, harmful waste can build up in the body. At that point, there are only two treatment options: dialysis or a kidney transplant.

In a matter of days, Chris started dialysis. Three times a week, his blood was filtered to replace the work of his failing kidneys.

It was a lot to take in – and the family felt as if they faced a frightening, unfamiliar foe. "We didn't really know anything about kidney disease – about dialysis, about transplants," Kathy says.

But, they weren't alone, she says.

A guiding, caring resource

The Vochoskas learned that UnitedHealthcare, the family's insurance provider, has a transplant program designed to support them. For months, UnitedHealthcare specialists guided them on a course that would ultimately lead to a new kidney for Chris. Among other benefits, the program helped connect the family with transplant center doctors and provided valuable information, resources and support.*

And, Kathy says, they walked them through the complicated transplant process.

"They help you navigate the path," she says. "Otherwise, you'd just be lost."

The family learned that transplant candidates can receive a kidney from a deceased donor – or a living person. So, Chris's parents began the screening process. Each was identified as a good match. But, ultimately, Kathy was the one the family agreed would be the donor.

Throughout the process, she turned to UnitedHealthcare's Transplant Resource Services whenever she had questions or concerns. "They were kind and caring," she says.

"They let us know they were there for us. That's tremendous, because you don't know where to go. You're not sure what to expect."

Kathy describes UnitedHealthcare's care and support as being a tremendous relief. It meant they didn't have to worry about whether their son would receive needed treatments. "It gave us peace," she says.

The provider network gave them access to top-notch doctors. And, they were pleasantly surprised to learn that UnitedHealthcare would even help with travel expenses to and from the transplant center.

Nearly seven months after Chris's stunning diagnosis, he and his mom were finally cleared for the transplant. They had their surgeries at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

As soon as Kathy awoke, she was taken to her son's side. She began to cry when doctors delivered the wonderful news: The kidney she'd given Chris began working immediately.

"That was such a relief and a blessing," Kathy says.

Approaching three years after his transplant, Chris is doing fine, Kathy says. It's not a cure, she notes. He must take daily medicines for the rest of his life. But, he's finishing a master's degree and is engaged to be married.

"He's doing everything he loves to do," his mother says proudly. "Life's really good for him."

Spreading the word

Kathy's life has changed, too. She now works with a group in her home state – Donate Life California. It's part of a national organization that encourages people to register as organ, eye and tissue donors. Kathy's involvement began when one of Chris's former high school teachers invited her to talk to a health education class. Soon, she was invited to speak in other schools.

As part of her talks, Kathy explains the transplant process – and answers the kids' questions. She hopes to raise awareness of the huge need for organ donors.

Looking back, she says she's so grateful for UnitedHealthcare and their dedication to organ donors and their families. "UnitedHealthcare was absolutely fantastic. I felt like they truly cared," Kathy says.

And, she wants more people to care. She thinks of the thousands of people who are out there in need of donor organs. Every day, many die while waiting. She's met some of their families, she says. "And, that motivates me."

*Check your benefits plan to see what services may be covered.

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