A grassroots effort to find a kidney has made a Colerain Township woman’s name known across the city.
You see signs emblazoned with her message: “A Kidney for Ann” at many major intersections in Kenwood, College Hill, Western Hills, Colerain Township... wherever she thinks they will catch the eye of a motorist idling at a red light or driving by. She’s hoping one of them has a kidney they are willing to donate to keep her alive.
Veronica Ann Mills has polycystic kidney disease, which is genetic. Fluid-filled sacs form in the kidneys and interfere with filtration. Her grandmother lived into her 90s before she saw any evidence of the problem, and Mills, 53, says she expected the same kind of timeline. So the diagnosis in October that her PKD had kicked in with a vengeance and she was facing kidney failure came as a real shock. For now, the most frustrating symptom of her disease is exhaustion.
“I see changes, and I can’t keep going as long as I used to,” she said. And there is nausea, as well. “My body is trying to adjust,” she said.
She has limited options: dialysis or a transplant. Both have drawbacks. Both can keep her alive. She says only about 2.5 percent of people, once they know they need a transplant, are able to find a kidney donor before dialysis, and Mills is determined to be part of that 2.5 percent.
Because her disease is genetic, her blood relatives are not eligible donors. Her husband has been medically excluded.
Not content to sit on a list and wait, she did what she usually does: came up with a plan.
“It’s up to me to find a donor,” she said.
“I am not a person who asks for help easily,” she said. “And I am not a person to share personal details about my health. But I want to be here for my children. I am going to do whatever I can to do that. To be here. I am not ready to die. I had my pity party, and now I am going to figure out what to do.”
First, she and her family handed out fliers at their parish, St. John Church Dry Ridge. They felt they needed to reach more people and the fliers were expensive.
She’s had unwitting help from a lot of politicians. From both sides of the political aisle, at grassroots and national political levels, candidates have unknowingly aided her campaign for a donor. She has, in fact, turned a part of that political world inside out. Literally.
She uses their discarded political signs.
When her family decided to mount a sign campaign, they began recycling all the election signs they could find. The family turns the signs inside out and Ann hand letters her simple message on the blank flip sides of the sign and then reuses the wires that support those signs as she posts her placards for kidney donors.
The family also turned to Facebook to spread her plight, and Ann says she has been overwhelmed by the amount of support it brought, as people offer to put signs – and her message – out.
“We are creating awareness at the same time we are looking for my donor,” she said. “Donation is a personal decision and our signs are pointing out the need for organ donation. If someone is willing to donate, and they are not a match for me, perhaps they are a match for someone else who is waiting.”
Mills is not unaware of what a transplant can mean. She is a nurse and worked for seven years on the University of Cincinnati Hospital’s transplant team while also assisting with kidney transplants. Her entire working life has been tied to the medical field, as she developed products and holds patents for equipment that helps hospitals operate more efficiently and fight infection. If you have ever had minimally invasive or laparoscopic surgery which only resulted in small scars, then Mills has touched your life.
She says the most difficult thing about her situation is the pain it’s causing her children. Andy, 18, is a senior at St. Xavier High School and Alexis, 22, has just started a job after graduating from college. It’s been tough on her husband, Alex, and her parents, Robert and Veronica Kistner, as well.”
“I am concerned about hanging this cloud over them,” she said. “It’s been hard.”
Mills admits she is not a passive person. She can’t just sit back and wait for her name to get to the top of the transplant list. She says a preemptive transplant, one that happens before her health begins to deteriorate further and she must begin dialysis, is her best bet for long-term success. She is determined to do whatever she can to move that process along.
“I made the decision that I am going to try to influence how the rest of my time on earth is spent,” she said. “If I do nothing, I am only going to get sicker. The average wait on the list is seven years. I admit, there have been a lot of tears. When I do the math, I don’t think I will be alive if I don’t do something.”
The campaign for a donor has surprised her, good surprises, and unhappy ones. She was not prepared for the negativity some people have shown regarding the signs, and it’s hard not to take it personally when they are taken down or stolen. She says she’s been amazed at the kindnesses shown, strangers offering to put signs in their yards or post them elsewhere, Harlan Graphics Arts Services donating 50 printed signs for her to put up, and she’s deeply touched by the stories she has heard from others who suffer from kidney disease or lost loved ones because of it.
For now, she’s making signs, getting her message out and living the life she has.
“I spent my life in the medical field,” she said. “Now I am in marketing.”
She hears a clock ticking. She knows she’s running against that clock.
“I am doing as much as I can as fast as I can,” she said. “I am only going to get sicker. I keep wondering what will I be like in six months. It keeps me going.”