For seven years, 39-year-old Gina Ferguson has worked in her dream job as a heart transplant coordinator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, where she has counseled and cared for hundreds of transplant patients. When she chose her field of work, Ferguson knew it would be rewarding, but she never knew that one day, she would have the opportunity to give what most of her patients have received, the gift of life. A few weeks ago, Ferguson donated a kidney to a very special patient – her father.
Ferguson’s father, 68-year-old Dennis, had battled high blood pressure for years. When it became clear that medicine was not going to effectively control his condition, Ferguson mentally prepared herself for the fact that he may one day need a transplant. In May of 2011, her father was diagnosed with kidney failure. He was put on the national kidney waiting list, but Ferguson knew that she would step up to be his donor and that he would look no further.
“I am the only child and I knew dad and I were the same blood type, making me a likely a match as a living donor,” said Ferguson. “The thought did not scare me. I was at peace with it from the beginning.”
A potential living kidney donor must meet certain age and health criteria, as well as have the same or compatible blood type as the recipient. Gina Ferguson was tested and found to be a perfect match for her father.
Dennis felt comfort in knowing his daughter had worked in the transplant field for years. “She really took charge and led me through the process. I knew everything was going to be ok,” said Dennis.
A transplant wasn’t immediately necessary, so the pair waited for the Northwestern Medicine® transplant team to determine the appropriate time for surgery. Ferguson, a triathlete who had put her race plans on hold for 2012, wasn’t used to sitting around and waiting, so she focused her energy on raising awareness for organ donation and transplantation through volunteer efforts with the National Kidney Foundation. Just one week before their scheduled transplant, on National Kidney Day, Gina traveled to Washington D.C. on behalf of the foundation to lobby for extended Medicare coverage for immunosuppressive drugs, which are medications recipients must take for the rest of their lives to prevent organ rejection.
Ferguson has always felt she understood what her patients were dealing with, yet being on the other side of the fence has given her a new perspective. “I’m a transplant coordinator, daughter of a transplant recipient and now a transplant donor,” said Ferguson. “This experience will allow me to support my patients in a very special way.”
“Gina takes great pride in her job,” said Edwin McGee, MD, cardiac surgeon at Northwestern Memorial and surgical director of heart failure, heart transplantation and mechanical assistance for the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. “She has always cared for patients like she knew what they were going through. And now she really does.”
After a year of being sick, Dennis says he has a new outlook on life. “It has felt like Christmas every day since I received my new kidney,” said Dennis. “I can now live a healthy and fulfilling life. I will forever be grateful to my daughter.”
Ferguson feels she is the one who has been blessed. “I am grateful I was healthy and able to be a living donor. I feel as if I am the one who received the gift.”
Northwestern Memorial has the largest living donor kidney transplant program in the country according to 2011 data from the United Network for Organ Sharing. To learn more about the transplant program, visit the Kovler Organ Transplantation Center online, or call 312-695-0828.