Jun 25, 2024
Giving the gift of life to a stranger

As a longtime employee of The Cigna Group, Vicki Arndt understands the importance of good health – and good health care. As someone who grew up in a family dedicated to helping others, she has donated her time, money, and more than seven gallons of blood over the years. However, she had never thought about donating an organ to a stranger. That changed when she saw a poster on the wall of her child’s karate studio.

“I knew intellectually that one could donate a whole organ like a kidney, or you could donate a portion of your liver as a living donor. But it never was really tangible to me,” said Arndt, who works in marketing for Cigna Healthcare, which is The Cigna Group’s health benefits business.

The poster explained that the father of one of the students was on dialysis and needed a kidney. “I’d never met this man,” she said. “He was my age. He had a young kid doing karate. He’s a South Asian man, so ethnically, we’re similar. And I thought: That could be me.” Two days later, she began the application process to become a donor.

The long road to donating a kidney

Qualifying to be a kidney donor takes time. “There are a lot of physical tests, making sure I was healthy enough to donate and live with one kidney afterward,” she said. “I talked to so many health professionals, from psychologists to pharmacists and my donor team, in addition to a social worker to make sure I was supported by those around me in this journey. I had many conversations with my family, including my two adolescent children, during this time too, knowing I would need their help during my recovery – and they were very encouraging. It all gave me the confidence to continue.” 

Along the way, even when she contracted COVID-19 and then had issues with long COVID, Arndt remained committed. When her intended recipient matched with another donor and received a kidney, she chose to donate instead to a stranger. That allowed her to decide when to donate, which lessened the impact on her family and her schedule.

“If I had donated to the karate dad, I would have felt compelled to do it as soon as we could. I wouldn’t want to keep him waiting,” she said. “In donating to a stranger, I knew that I’d be paired up with whoever had the need at that time. I could decide when I wanted to donate, and I picked a time that was a little less busy both at work and in my personal life. Once that was determined, I was matched with a person who was in need.”

Giving the gift of life

About a year after spotting the poster at the karate studio, Arndt checked into a local hospital to donate her kidney. The recipient was waiting in Massachusetts, and a medical courier hopped on a commercial flight to deliver the kidney.

The recipient’s health insurance covered Arndt’s care, and The Cigna Group provided short-term disability payments during her recovery.

“I felt an outpouring of support,” Arndt said. “It was overwhelming and kind of humbling. In addition, I’ve heard that other people have been inspired by it.” Some people she knows are looking into becoming an organ donor, while another has resumed donating blood.

“From my donation, I feel personally fulfilled. I know there’s a human being walking around with a part of me – that’s surreal. But the impact is beyond just me and that recipient. It’s got the potential to impact every single person I know, maybe in a different way.”

Recovery from major abdominal surgery wasn’t easy, but today she feels great. “It’s just amazing what the human body is capable of, what your mind is capable of, and what my community was capable of,” she said. “To rally around me was just really humbling.”

Six months later, making a connection

At the time of the surgery, all Arndt knew was that the recipient lived in Massachusetts. She was allowed to write the recipient a letter, which her care team provided to their care team. “I didn’t know if they were male, female, their age, what they did,” she said. “What’s their life? What’s their circumstance? I wrote them a letter in October, and I heard back in April, six months after my surgery.”

“She’s a mom, with twins who are about the same ages as my kids – and I’m a twin, which is an interesting connection.” The letter was delightful, she said, and unexpected, coming so long after she wrote the recipient. “She’s recovering well,” Arndt said. “She talked about how her condition impacted her family and told me she’s appreciative of getting her own life back.”

Arndt also has connected with the dad at the karate studio, who received a kidney a year ago and is doing well. “He’s grateful to me for my willingness to be his donor, and I’m grateful to him for unlocking the opportunity.”

How to learn more about organ donations

More than 100,000 people in the United States are on the national transplant waiting list, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and the vast majority of those patients – almost 90,000 – need a kidney.  On average, 17 people awaiting a transplant die every day.

For those who are thinking about signing up to become a donor, HRSA provides specific information for each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S Virgin Islands.

“It’s such a worthwhile experience, and I would say start small,” Arndt said. “Consider being a registered organ donor or giving blood. These small actions have a ripple effect, and your one action makes such an impact on the lives of others. It’s such a fulfilling experience – to give back to others – and it really gives you just as much happiness and joy as it does to those who are receiving your donation.”

This article was created with the assistance of AI tools. It was reviewed, edited, and fact-checked by The Cigna Group’s editorial team.

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