Pam Smith and her husband Antonio

| one month ago

Eleven Years Later, Kidney Donor and Husband Are Still a Perfect Match

Eleven years ago, Pam Smith gave her husband a kidney and changed their lives forever. The happy couple pays it forward by telling others about the benefits of living organ donation and embracing a healthy lifestyle.

“I’ll never forget the day my wife, Pam, called me. I was at my worst that day and was feeling really bad,” says 63-year-old Antonio Smith, an ordained minister and resident of Charlotte, North Carolina. “She called me and said, ‘Honey, I have some good news. I’m not just a match – I’m a perfect match.’ It turned out to be one of the best days of my life.”

Antonio was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age 18 while he was playing football. When he talked with his mother and grandparents, he learned that diabetes ran in his family. As long as he kept playing football, he stayed in good shape without developing any complications from the disease.

After he stopped playing football, he started his ministry work and continued to eat the wrong foods. By age 48, his doctor discovered that his diabetes was causing protein to leak into his urine. At that point, he was in the late phase of stage 3 kidney disease.

A few years later, his blood pressure was out of control, causing him to feel weak constantly. His doctor revealed he was in chronic kidney failure and would have to go on long-term dialysis or prepare for a kidney transplant.

“Thinking about my grandma’s experience on dialysis, I knew I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life,” he says.

To prepare his body for transplant, Antonio had to improve his health. This involved going on short-term peritoneal dialysis (a process that cleans the blood inside the patient’s body) and getting some diabetic ulcers on his feet to clear up. Then he had to find a donor.

Before Antonio could start reaching out to family and friends about donating, Pam stepped up to the plate.

“I didn’t want anyone else tested before I was tested,” she says. “If I was a match, I was going to give my husband the kidney he needed.”

After finding out that she was a match, the transplant date was set for March 27, 2013, at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center.

Supportive staff, quality care

Pam was grateful to have all her questions answered before surgery.

“I’m very inquisitive, and they left no stone unturned,” Pam says. “On the day of our surgery, we both went in feeling so calm and confident that everything would go well. We had no regrets or fears – and no major questions swirling around in our minds. Our two daughters were there with us, so the staff addressed their questions and helped calm their nerves.”

Antonio had nothing but positive things to say about the care they received.

“The staff was very professional, knowledgeable and supportive,” Antonio says. “To this day, I recommend Atrium Health to others.”

Nephrologist Dr. Michael Etomi was “awesome” and was with Antonio every step of the way.

“He broke the news to me about needing a transplant and explained everything I’d have to go through,” says Antonio. “He referred me to my surgeon and made sure I received quality care. It felt like we were the best of friends.”

Exceptional results

Antonio’s doctors said he would feel instant relief after the transplant – and they were right. Each day, he felt better and stronger.

“The day after, I was sitting up and talking to the doctor in my room,” Antonio explains. “He said, ‘I’ve been doing kidney surgeries for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a prettier kidney than the one you got. If you take care of it, it could easily last you another 50 years.’”

Eleven years later, Antonio’s kidneys are still functioning above 80%, and he’s had no complications concerning his new kidney. He still struggles with his diabetes at times and has his A1C level checked every three months. He sees his nephrologist once a year.  

“As far as my health, I’m super,” he relates. “The transplant has made an incredible difference in my life. It’s now much easier for me to travel and play with my three grandsons.”

Pam adds, “In the early days, I saw him when he was feeling really bad. While he was ministering at the church, he could only preach for maybe 10 to 15 minutes on a good day. And he couldn’t sing. Now, he’s back to feeling great as he preaches inspirational messages and sings before and after.”

Pam’s surgeon, Dr. Vincent Casingal, chief of the division of abdominal transplant surgery at Carolinas Medical Center, had some insight on what made this transplant so successful.

“When a husband and wife are committed to their health, we get some of the best results from transplant surgery,” Casingal says. “The whole household is dedicated and fully vested in it. I also give Pam a lot of credit for keeping herself healthy.”

Demand for donors

The United Network for Organ Sharing reports that more than 100,000 people are currently waiting for transplants. Roughly 80% of these patients are waiting for a kidney.

A significant number of donor kidneys are needed by African Americans since kidney disease tends to affect them more than other populations.

“Since the African American community can be at higher risk for developing kidney disease due to family history, diabetes and high blood pressure, we want to be very careful managing these patients,” explains Tania Feemster, living kidney donor coordinator with Atrium Health Transplant Center, a facility of Carolinas Medical Center.

“Since Pam donated her kidney, we have newer tools to help us counsel patients on their potential risk of developing end-stage kidney disease,” Feemster adds. “For example, we can use a genetic test to determine if a young African American carries a gene that may increase their risk of developing kidney disease in the future. Of course, it’s not a guarantee that they will, but it gives us more risk-based information than we had in the past.”

For all potential donors, the transplant team stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes a heart-healthy diet, exercise, weight management and regular follow-up visits with a physician.

Casingal recommends that all patients with kidney disease should pursue finding a living donor.

“Living donation occurs for only about 23% of patients,” Casingal says. “We need to increase living organ donation awareness so that more people understand the benefits and safety of the procedure.”

Why are kidney transplants so beneficial? According to Casingal, transplant recipients live longer and feel better than those who go on long-term dialysis.

Donor advocacy  

A couple of months after Pam and Antonio’s recovery, a friend took them to lunch and said, “This is bigger than the two of you. People need to know what happened to you.”

Antonio remembers that moment as the spark that ignited his and Pam’s passion to share their transplant story with the community. After 38 years of marriage, they’re happy to make every effort to help others to improve their health.

In 2015, Pam and Antonio co-founded Smith Bios Group, a nonprofit organization with a mission to encourage individuals to embrace a healthier lifestyle. They mostly visit African American churches and share their kidney transplant story. Pam and Antonio talk about diabetes and high blood pressure and their contribution to chronic kidney disease. They also discuss the importance of nutrition and physical fitness.

“We visit communities of color to dispel myths about organ donation and examine the facts,” says Pam. “Sharing our story piques the interest of our audience because we lived through it. We also invite those who have gone through transplant surgery to share their experiences.”

In addition to their nonprofit work, Pam and Antonio advocate for embracing healthy lifestyles through their radio talk show, It’s All About Health. This program, which is targeted to the African American community, airs on wecareradio.net on Sundays at 4 p.m. 

Walking the walk

“I know God allowed this to happen to me so that I can help others,” says Antonio. “My wife says, ‘Your story is about you, but it’s not for you.’ So I share my story and help people who are scared to death and facing similar problems.”

Sometimes helping others involves tough love.

“I tell them what they need to do. I say, ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me,’” Antonio explains. “In other words, your doctor can’t control your blood pressure or your A1C – you have to do it. You have to make the needed lifestyle changes. I had to come to grips with that. If you’re not willing to do that, you’ll have to pay the price.”

Since his transplant, Antonio has changed his diet completely. For example, he prefers to drink water and eats plenty of vegetables.

“We try to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” Pam says.

“Learning about the effect it’s had on their lives and their work as advocates reminds me of the lasting impact of a kidney transplant,” says Casingal. “Eleven years later, they’re still out there spreading the word and helping others realize better health and a more normal life.”

Learn more about living donor