One rainy day in the spring of 2021, longtime friends Lisa Polk and Kevin Fuller got to talking while shielding themselves from the elements on the 300-level concourse of the Chicago White Sox’s Guaranteed Rate Field.
They had met over 20 years ago and became friends as neighboring season ticket holders. Their casual conversation soon turned serious as they started discussing Polk’s health condition — she had a kidney disorder and was about to start dialysis. But she was also looking for a compatible, live donor she could receive a kidney transplant from. Fuller mentioned he, like Polk, was O positive.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to give me your spare?” Polk asked her fellow baseball fan. It was a life-changing question softened by her playful tone. After giving it some thought and undergoing various compatibility tests, Fuller decided to go through with the organ transplantation, which took place last September. “I knew her well enough that this was something I wanted to do for a friend,” he said.
“When you’re looking for a living kidney, you literally can’t be bashful. So you ask everybody that you know,” Polk told the Tribune over the phone, recalling the pivotal conversation she had with her fellow White Sox fan. “I was determined that I was going to try for a live kidney transplant because your chances of rejection are, like, 1%, as opposed to cadaver kidneys.”
And that’s not the only factor that prospective recipients take into consideration. According to the National Kidney Foundation, the average wait time for a kidney transplant from a nonliving donor is three to five years.
Polk, 64, a Park Ridge resident, had been diagnosed with a congenital bladder defect four decades ago. “I basically knew, 40 years ago, that if I lived long enough, somewhere down the line, I would need a kidney transplant. So it was always in the back of my mind,” she said.
Fuller, 55, a River North resident, said he felt confident in his decision to become a living donor when he realized the transplant would be like any other surgery and that the positives would outweigh the negatives. His mother, he said, is a nurse and was “all for it.”
“I think the main thing was understanding that complications afterward, just like any surgery, exist, but they’re rare,” he said. “A large part of it is just taking care of yourself afterward, because anybody — even with two kidneys — can end up with kidney disease as they get older, if they have diabetes or they smoke or they don’t take care of themselves.”
After the mid-September surgery at the University of Illinois Hospital, Polk said, she felt no pain whatsoever. Now six months after the transplant, she’s still on a straight path to recovery — as is Fuller. But postsurgery isolation meant Polk was unable to get out of the house much, so she missed the White Sox’s spring training.
With Living Donor Day (April 5) on the horizon, however, Polk will get to celebrate and reunite with the man who changed her life at the White Sox’s home opener Monday. There, the pair will meet Harold Baines, Hall of Famer and White Sox great, who received a lifesaving dual heart and kidney transplant last year.
“It’s amazing how many people I know who are either on dialysis or have had a kidney transplant in some way, shape or form,” Polk said. “Because nobody talks about it. And I think that you need to talk about it.”
Fuller said he hopes sharing their story will let more people realize they can donate organs or tissue to an acquaintance or loved one while they’re alive.
“I hope everybody who gets their driver’s license becomes an organ donor, because Lord knows you don’t need (organs) in death,” Fuller said. “There’s always things down the line that I can’t foresee, but it’s been surprisingly — painless is the wrong word — it’s been surprisingly un-difficult, or not difficult ... You’d be surprised how well it can go, particularly if you have good medical care and good support.”
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, living donors can donate one of their kidneys, a part of their liver, one lobe of the lung, part of their pancreas or part of their intestine. They can also donate other tissues such as skin, bone, bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, amnion and blood.
“I would like for people in Lisa’s situation to get a better shot at the rest of their lives,” Fuller said. “One thing I find amazing is how something as simple as going to baseball games sort of brought us together. Pay attention to the world around you. You never know where you might plug into someone’s life.”
Note from NKFI
Wait times in Illinois are between 5-8 years for a deceased donor kidney.