“Son, the only thing you’ll inherit from me is your education,” my dad often told me. He continually emphasized to me the importance of better oneself through college and the opportunities a degree could afford. Little did I know that, a few years down the line, my father’s life would be at stake and I would have to choose between him and my future.
This spring, a day after World Kidney Day, pop star Selena Gomez was in the news thanking her friend Francia Raisa for donating the kidney Selena needed when she fell ill. On YouTube, Raisa shared the conversation she’d had while trying to decide what to do with her therapist, who told her, “It’s going to be hard. The recipient is going to glow and recover a lot faster than the donor. She’s receiving what she needs. You’re losing something you don’t need to lose.” Raisa spoke of going through a depression that it took a long time to recover from after donating her kidney. I could relate.
Growing up in Kenya, my father, Charles, worked on a tea farm while my mother, Priscilla, stayed home with me, my brother Ted and sister Maya. Dad loved golfing. On Saturday mornings he’d take my brother and I to play with him, then treat us to English-style fishfingers and chips, my favorite childhood memory.
But when I was nine, my father had surgery to remove a malignant tumor. To survive, he had to give up a kidney. The primary provider for our family, he lost his job. We were forced to leave home and move to Nairobi.
My father tried driving a truck, ferrying mangoes into city markets, where he’d be gone for weeks. I missed him. My mother became a store clerk before she was hired to run a restaurant. I hated watching my parents struggle to keep us in school. Many times, we were sent home for unpaid fees. It was embarrassing. But education was important to my father, who couldn’t afford to go to college and had to go to work immediately after high school. He encouraged me to excel academically. This made me work hard to get into my first-choice college in South Africa to study graphic design.
Yet after my freshman year in 2011, my mother called me home urgently, saying, “Dad is unwell.” In end-stage kidney failure, he needed an organ donation. We looked within the family for potential donors before signing up to be waitlisted at local hospitals. It could take a year for a suitable match to be found.
My siblings were too young to be considered and my mother needed to work to keep us afloat. My 45-year-old uncle and I took the test to learn if we were compatible. We underwent physical exams and bloodwork that would check our DNA for matching status, with samples sent to South African labs. My father’s condition deteriorated, affecting his mood. He was in severe pain and irritable all the time.
When the tests came back, we found out that my uncle was an 83 percent match, and I was 50 percent. I was happy he was more compatible, giving my dad a better shot of survival. But then my uncle was ruled out after it was determined that he’d developed high blood pressure, the disease that caused my father’s kidney to fail in the first place. It was now up to me. I was 21 years old.
It was insane pressure, especially since I was in the midst of getting that education my father had always encouraged me to get. Though my uncle was a better match, the doctors felt a kidney from a younger donor would last longer. From that moment, my dad was hooked; he wanted my kidney.
The operation was risky, coming as it did with a chance I’d develop hypertension and have reduced kidney function for the rest of my life. It was also possible that my father’s body could reject my kidney, which frightened me. I didn’t want to do it, but I loved my father. I prayed for direction. Reading the book of John in the bible, I came to the passage: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I felt inspired. If God had sacrificed his son Jesus for me, I thought, shouldn’t I give up myself for my father? I convinced myself I should drop out of college and volunteer to donate.
With Dad unable to work, Mom took on the role of breadwinner. This took a heavy toll on her. We resorted to raising funds from family, friends, and well-wishers with Harambee, Kenya’s version of a GoFundMe-style campaign. This was our only option, since medical insurance was out of reach. Once we had raised enough money, my parents and I flew to India where the surgery took place under a world-renowned nephrologist.
The following six weeks were filled with tests to confirm the eligibility for the transplant. My dad underwent dialysis as his condition worsened. I held his hand in that cold room where the machines were, pushing him back to our room on a wheelchair after his sessions. On August 1st, 2012, we were approved to undergo the surgery.
“Is Dad okay?” I asked Mom, when I came to after a four-hour transplant surgery.
“I don’t know yet — he’s still in the operating room,” she said.
I was exhausted from the procedure, with an IV attached to my left arm and ventilator tubes in my nose. I closed my eyes to rest, proud that I had been able to help my father.
Though Dad was grateful, he felt guilty that he’d caused me to drop out of college. He urged me to look for another school after I recovered, but I didn’t want to. The burden of undergoing a life-altering surgery was something I couldn’t just get over easily. It took me time. Yet I could sense his disappointment that I was wasn’t a college graduate. It was frustrating, since saving him was what had slowed me down.
Finally, eight years after our surgery, I enrolled in the Manhattan design school of my dreams, receiving an 80 percent scholarship to cover tuition. I graduated with honors at 30. My only regret was that the pandemic made it impossible for my father to be there. But at 60, he was watching online, wearing my school’s centennial T-shirt, writing “Bravo” in the chat, beaming with joy.
These days, I’m grateful to be healthy, fit, and strong as a living kidney donor. Going through the operation taught me the virtue of selflessness. It also justified my selfish desire to finally go for exactly what I wanted in America. I didn’t regret sacrificing part of me to save the man I admired most. But in my book, that covered gifts for the rest of his birthdays and Father’s Days — so he won’t be receiving any extra presents this year.