Only 30: In America… and she needs a kidney
By Brittany Gamble
It’s 11am, and Tihana Macakanja has just spent two and a half hours hooked to a machine; and even after the procedure ends, she's facing a 15-minute drive home. It's an arduous cycle that she repeats three times a week, but with her closest relatives ruled out as kidney donors, dialysis is something she could be stuck with for a long time.
A native Croat, Macakanja, along with her mother, father, and a sister, came to America in 1999. They left behind her older sister– and the bombs that were falling during the Croatian War for Independence.
In 2005, on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall, the two sisters founded a Yugoslavian food store called X-Yuga. After two years, however, the duo closed the store. Macakanja, now living in Fluvanna, makes a thrice-weekly trek to a UVA-affiliated medical facility in Zion Crossroads for her dialysis.
First learned of her failing kidneys when she became pregnant in 2003, Macakanja lost most of her kidney function in 2010.
“Almost two years ago, I started with dialysis,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a temporary thing, but it’s so hard to find a donor.”
To hear the 30-year-old talk of "the list" is to learn of a litany of near-misses, potential donors who backed out (including European friends who can't afford to travel and recuperate in America). Then there's the reluctance of people who do not realize they can live full lives with just one kidney.
“Education is a big barrier that we deal with,” says Jennifer Thompson, administrative assistant for the Transplant Department for the UVA Hospital. But the main concern, says Thompson, is finding a compatible donor.
“We have people out there that want to donate but unfortunately aren’t a match,” says Thompson.
Macakanja's mother, for instance, was eager to give, but her high blood pressure might have put both donor and recipient at risk for further ailments. Both her two sisters and her father didn't match.
Unfortunately for Macakanja and many others, there are over 110,000 patients on organ transplant lists and fewer than 13,000 registered donors, so it can take a lifetime to reach the top.
Despite the setbacks, Macakanja was encouraged to learn recently that former City Planning Commissioner Cheri Lewis plans to go under the knife in March to give a kidney to a man who's the husband of a high school teacher and soccer coach of hers.
“They have been like second parents to me,” says Lewis.
By contrast, the Croatian natives find that they haven’t developed such a wealth of connections in their new country. “We’re really alone here,” notes Macakanja’s sister, Duska Burruss.
Still, after surviving a war, they say resignation is no option.
Author Brittany Gamble was a recent intern for the Hook.
Note: story adjusted at 10:43am Tuesday, March 6 (prior to print publication) to correct a couple of facts.Read more on: organ donation