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Cathy Free: Donating kidneys a family thing

Published: Thursday, Feb. 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes, when Cynthia Bowers hears about the long list of sick people waiting for a new kidney, she almost forgets that she doesn't have one to give.

"You want so badly to help. If I had another, I'd give it in a heartbeat," says the 60-year-old West Jordan grandmother and state finance executive. "Giving my kidney away was one of the best experiences of my life."

Donating a part of themselves to strangers in need was also rewarding for Cynthia's two daughters, Laura Wickam, 32, and Alyson Bowers, 26. The three are believed to be the first family in the United States to have three living donors give organs through the Good Samaritan Kidney Donor Program.

"I believe the reason we all have two kidneys when we only need one is because we were meant to give one away," explains Cynthia. "To help another person live to see their children grow up or live to have grandchildren — what better gift is there?"

That was motivation enough for her to add her name to the donor's list, but there was also a more personal reason: Cynthia's oldest daughter, Amy, died of cancer at age 25.

"There was no chance of saving her," she says quietly, "but for somebody who needs a new kidney, there is a chance. I realized that I could make a difference for somebody else's son or daughter."

With more than 65,000 people waiting for their chance at the top of the nation's kidney transplant list, Cynthia and Laura (Alyson is in South Korea teaching English until this fall) wanted to share their story over a Free Lunch of chicken-cashew sandwiches and Italian tomato soup at Sugar House's Paradise Bakery Cafe.

"If even one person hears our story and decides to become a donor, it's worth it," says Cynthia, who signed up to be a "Good Sam" donor seven years ago.

"A lot of people don't donate because they worry about the future — what if one of their family members needs a kidney someday?" she says. "Yes, the recipients of 'Good Sam' kidneys are strangers, but they have hopes and dreams like anyone else. Once you've given to a stranger, there's a bond there that can't be broken."

It was 2003 when Cynthia learned that a state office worker's daughter needed a transplant because an earlier kidney donation was failing.

"My mom told our family, 'I'd like to help this woman,' " recalls Laura, "and I piped up, 'If you can't help her, I will.' I liked the idea of giving a stranger a new chance at life. So we both got tested, and it became like this little competition to see who could give away her kidney first."

Although Laura was found to be the better match, Cynthia soon received a call from the LDS Hospital Transplant Program. A 42-year-old man from Clinton needed a new kidney right away. Could she come in the next day to meet him?

"You walk in and there's this stranger there who is so grateful to you that they hardly have words to express it," she says. "He and his wife gave me a big hug and said it was the best day of their lives. After the surgery, my recipient's entire family was waiting at the foot of my bed, wanting to make sure that I was OK because I'd given their loved one new hope for a long life."

Not long afterward, Cynthia's youngest daughter, Alyson, donated her kidney to a 19-year-old man whose kidneys had failed after an extreme bout of flu.

"He's doing well now. He has his whole life ahead of him because of Aly's decision," she says.

Cynthia points to the slogan on the front of her T-shirt. "Recycle Life," it says.

"It's become my personal motto. In fact, when I die, I hope my remaining kidney is in good enough shape to be of use to somebody," she says.

She looks at her daughter and smiles. "But don't worry," says Cynthia. "I'm not ready to give it up just yet."

More information about the Good Samaritan Kidney Donor Program can be found at yesutah.org.

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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