Nebraska woman building support group for organ donors

Sunshine Solaas donated a kidney to a friend from work, and wants others to know they can do the same. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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June 16, 2015 - 6:45am

Last year, a central Nebraska woman helped save a man’s life when she donated her kidney to him. But she isn’t satisfied with saving just one person.

Living in Broken Bow, Nebraska you might expect someone named "Sunshine" to be a bright and cheery person…and you would be correct.

“I would always be the one to befriend that person in school that, you know, was kind of off by themselves and didn’t have somebody to talk to,” Sunshine Solaas said.

Yes, Sunshine is her real name, and she said her ability to make friends has helped her grow as a person. It also saved a life.

A year ago this month, Solaas was at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. She had given her left kidney to a man named Tony, a friend from work.

“I was a waitress/bartender and he was the keno guy.  So that was it, you know,” Sunshine said, “ When we weren’t busy, I’d go over to the keno counter and talk and talk from anything from my boy problems to work. [We] just chatted every day at work.”

Solaas said her then-fiancé-now-husband and the nine children they have between them were all very supportive of her decision to become a living donor.

“My youngest, I believe she cried a little bit being a little bit scared.  But I reassured her mommy would be okay and it was going to help Tony,” Solaas said.

For more information about organ donation, please follow these links:

Nebraska Organ Recovery:

Transplant Center at UNMC:

Sunshine's Facebook Group:

With the decision to donate her kidney, Solaas' surgery was one of the more than 170 kidney transplant surgeries performed last year at UNMC.

It also meant Tony would not have to spend 11 hours of his day just trying to live. Before the transplant, he drove back and forth to Lincoln from Broken Bow almost every day for dialysis treatments.

“The kidneys are a big filter.  They do a lot of different things, but one of the big things that they do is filter the blood,” said Dr. Michael Morris, the associate professor of surgery at UNMC. He is also the doctor who performed Solaas’ transplant surgery.

Dr. Morris said even though the hospital’s kidney transplant center is one of the busiest in the country, patients waiting for transplants don’t have to wait too long.

“We have one of the shortest wait times in the country,” Dr. Morris said, “because we’re Nebraska and we have 1.8 million people that we’re taking care of versus Philadelphia or New York, where they have a 10 million population base.

“So our average wait time is variable to the extent of blood type, but varies from two to three years.  In cities, big cities, big metropolitan areas, that wait time can be up to six to eight years for the same organ.”

According to the United Network of Organ Sharing, there are around 114,000 Americans currently waiting for a potentially life-saving organ transplant. 500 of them live in Nebraska.

Sunshine Solaas already took one of those patients off the waiting list, but she wants to do more.

So she is creating a support network for living donors in Nebraska.

“Because the doctors don’t know everything. They can tell you what to look for. They can tell you signs of infection, the medical part of it, but the emotional side of it, the physical uncomfort of it, they can’t tell you all of that,” Solaas said.

Solaas said her medical team was great, but after her surgery she wanted to talk to someone who knew exactly what she was going through. She got in touch with a woman she had met online who had also donated a kidney.

“I never met her. We’re friends on Facebook, and that’s where I got most of my help was just through messenger on Facebook,” Solaas said. “I haven’t even heard her voice. I’ve never called her but through Facebook and texting and that kind of correspondence she was able to help me through.”

Solaas said the advice she received from her online friend was invaluable; things like how to deal with friends and family doing everything for you, and how to get comfortable at two in the morning a week after someone takes out a piece of your body.

“Night time was probably the hardest for me," Solaas said. "Everybody else in my house was sleeping, who do you talk to? And you don’t want to call the hospital because it’s not really an emergency, but you want somebody to talk to.”

Solaas has at least six living donors in Nebraska who have agreed to be a part of her support network, but she plans to add more in the months ahead.

Ideally, Solaas wants doctors at UNMC to give her contact information to potential living donors, who she can then pair with someone from the support network with similar circumstances.

Solaas said not only will this sort of peer-to-peer exchange spread the word about becoming a living donor, you never know what other things might come out of organ donation. After all, Tony, the man she gave a kidney to, performed the ceremony at her wedding last fall. Paying back a little bit of the sunshine he had received from her, just a few months before.

Watch this video feature about Sunshine and Tony's organ donation story.  The segment was produced by NET's Sue Maryott for "Nebraska Stories."



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