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For the week of March 7 through 13, 2001

Church member donates kidney

"Itís amazing to me how people have put me on this pedestal. Itís not a big deal."

Vicki Smith, kidney donor

Express Staff Writer

In January, Hailey resident Vicki Smith, 50, a wife and mother of two, flew across the country to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and donated a kidney to someone she hardly knew.

Vicki Smith Express photo by David Seelig

Now, two months later, she downplays the altruism of that act, though it has allowed another Hailey resident, Lisa Tanner, also a wife and mother, to resume a life without all-day trips to Twin Falls three times a week for dialysis.

During an interview last week, Tanner said she worries a little about rejecting the organ she received from Smith, but otherwise, sheís doing "okay." As for Smith, "sheís a wonderful person," Tanner said, laughing.

A visit to Smithís house begins to give some insight to the reasons for her generosity. The inside of the neat Victorian-style home is bedecked with Christian motifs. Smith herself wore a large cross on a necklace for a Saturday morning interview. She said her deep commitment to Catholicism made her decision to donate her kidney obvious.

"Itís amazing to me how people have put me on this pedestal," she said. "Itís not a big deal.

"The neatest thing for me has been being able to share my faith. To me, itís been a great way to evangelize."

On the more practical side, she said she is still regaining her strength following the four-and-a-half hour surgery Jan. 2. She has four small scars on her abdomen. Doctors told her she should protect her remaining kidney by avoiding eating large amounts of salt and high-protein foods.

She said her daughter, Joy Dobson, 29, asked whether she was afraid losing a kidney would eventually shorten her life.

"Possibly," Smith said. "But I still wanted to do it, because Iím not afraid to die. My faith is really strong. Iím looking forward to the next phase," which she said is eternity.

She believes a "sacrificial way of living" will get her there.

Tanner and Smith both belong to the parish of St. Charles Catholic Church in Hailey. The parish had spread the news of Tannerís health problems not only to Smith but to hundreds of others.

In May of last year, the church organized a 400-person fund-raising dinner for Tanner, and several members of the church volunteered to begin driving Tanner to Twin Falls for her dialysis treatments.

Smith said she began considering donating when she learned that Tannerís father could not donate his kidney after doctors found cysts on them in October 1999.

"Iím not really friends with Lisa, but she goes to the Catholic church," she said. "I started praying, should I come forward? I knew, I knew Iíd be the one."

Three other members of the church also volunteered to be tested for donation, Smith said, including Patti and Gary Hardman and Marsha Reiman, "but I won because I was the youngest."

Smith remembers the day she told Tanner of her decision.

"We were coming out of church," Smith said. "I just told her, ĎLisa, I want to be tested to see if I can be a donor for you.í"

Kidney donors must have the same blood type as their recipients. In May of last year, Smith began the involved blood testing that precedes a transplant at Dr. Donald Levinís office in Hailey and at the Hailey Medical Clinic.

Then, in July, she flew to Johns Hopkins, for the final round of testing. Tanner followed a day later, and the next day, the hospital began preparing them both for operation. But high levels of calcium in Tannerís blood prevented the surgery, and the two were forced to return home.

"We were so blown out," Smith said.

In October, Smithís stepson, Shane, was killed in a car accident, which Smith said raised new questions in her daughterís mind about the transplant. Again, her faith directed her.

"Weíre all the body of Christ," she said. "We may as well share the parts."

Nevertheless, her stepsonís death caused her to postpone a Nov. 7 date for the operation. "I couldnít do it," she said.

And there were other complications with Tannerís health for which she required surgery and recovery before the transplant could take place.

Smith, whoís a third-grade teacher at Hailey Elementary School, meanwhile was working with the Blaine County School District to get time off.

The fall and early winter, Smith characterized as a "real roller-coaster."

"That part was hardóall the canceling."

Then, on Jan. 2, all the pieces came together.

To avoid holiday travel crowds, the two flew back to Baltimore a few days early, and "we basically had a three-day mini vacation," Smith said. "We had a really fun time, and then we had the surgery."

Members of both families were also there.

Smith remained in the hospital for five days recovering, because she was "really sick from the anesthesia," and then she came home on Jan. 10.

Tanner, whose body nearly rejected the new organ, remained in the hospital for almost a month before returning to Hailey.

Smith admits the possibility that the kidney would be lost was daunting. "It was hard for me to think that I had gone through all that for nothing."

Now, she said, she and Tanner talk once a week.

To others who would be reluctant to do the same thing as Smith, she said, "Weíre not going to get out of this life alive, so what is the most good you can do? Doing good is in front of you. You just have to be courageous enough to take the challenges."

On the general shortage of organ donations from both the living and the dead, she said, "I wish people would realize itís not as dangerous or hard to do as you think."

Should everyone consider doing it?

"Yeah," she said. "I wish people would consider it."


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