This week we have a story from a woman named Catriona Ni Aolain. Her friends and family call her Kate. Kate’s story, on the surface, looks like the story of a hero - a heroine. She does something incredibly generous. After learning that a woman in her neighborhood needs a kidney donation, Kate decides to donate her own kidney. She goes through with it, gets the operation, and gives away one of her kidneys. But it’s not so simple. The emotions that Kate ends up having aren’t what she expects them to be.
Content: kidney transplant, kidney donation
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Jamie: Hi, it's Jamie. This is If You knew me, a show where we share powerful stories from the inner lives of women, however they identify. This is a home for vulnerability and courage, a safe and a brave space. We highlight first person stories about topics that women rarely share, even with their closest friends.
Our guests can choose to share their real names or to remain anonymous. This week we hear a story from an Irish woman living in New York City named Catriona Ni Aolain
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Okay. This week we have a story from a woman named Catriona Ni Aolain .That is her real name.
Her friends and family do call her her Kate, though. Kate's story on the surface looks like the story of a hero or a heroin. She does something incredibly generous after learning that a woman in her neighborhood needs a kidney donation, Kate decides to donate her own kidney. She goes through with it. She gets the operation, and she gives away one of her kidneys.
But it's not so simple. The emotions that Kate ends up having aren't what she expects them to be. This episode is entitled Kidney Sisters.
Catriona: A few years ago I was working at a magazine in New York City and we did a lot of human interest stories, while I was there. And one day at our weekly pitch meeting, uh, a writer who worked on the human interest piece
talked about a woman that she had heard about, actually a, a woman who lived near our offices in downtown New York, in Tribeca, who had had this catastrophic, health situation a few months previous to this meeting. And the story that she told was, This woman who was a mom of two boys had gotten really unwell out of the blue, and, had ended up having to have her arms and her legs amputated.
it was because of sepsis, which was very sort of shocking. you know, it's not a common thing to happen. And very often with sepsis, the infection can be stopped with antibiotics. But in this particular instance, I'm still quite not sure why they weren't able to rectify the situation and they had to make the decision to save her life,Andto amputated her arms and her legs.
the story that, um, the writer who's actually a friend of mine, , Caitlin Keating told, was basically an idea to talk about how this woman had, you know, this life, changing event happened to her and she had come home and she was recovering and learning how to use her, prostheticsand learning how to live her life again.
through the family we were going to do a story on, on her recovery. even though that was the story that was pitched at the meeting, I realized as I was listening to her tell the story that I had heard about this woman before. through a circle of my mom, friends, that this thing had happened to her.
Catriona: And I heard about it because there was a GoFundMe to help with her recovery and specifically to help with, the cost of her prosthetics. I remember when I heard the story originally through my mom friends, it did make me think about how, you know, you can take so many.
In life for granted. And then something like this can happen And you know, it can just be so devastating and it, made me grateful for my health. and being able to take care of my two boys. . so when I heard her telling the story, I went to talk to her afterwards and I said, if this story proceeds, I'd really like to be involved.
I can imagine it's going to be very difficult for her you know, to be photographed. if you can keep me in the loop of what's going on, because I'd like to work on this story. At the time I was the director of photography there. I was primarily responsible for the cover shoots and the big special projects I would occasionally handle other types of stories, but I did have a team of photo editors that worked on different sort of sections of the magazine or different types of stories. But with this one, I knew that I wanted to be there to just make it as easy a process as possible. so. . that was probably in early winter And maybe a month or so later, I ran into Caitlin in the hallway and I said what's going on with the, the story about Ilysa And she said, oh, the story's on hold because, her kidneys have failed and her recovery has slowed down as a result of that. right now, their focus is on gettingsomebody to donate a kidney to her. I remember just feeling this very, physical response. it made me feel nauseous, Like how, could this be that somebody had gone through something so catastrophic and was brave enough to start working on learning how to live with prosthetics and living, you know, a normal life again, and now she had to wait for somebody to, come forward and help her and donate a kidney.
I have the box ticked on my driver's license. You know, that I would donate my organs if anything happened to me, but I never really thought about a, a living donation. But in that moment, I went back to my office and I went to the original site where I had, you know, donated some money to her prosthetics or her recovery, And there was an update, uh, about the fact that she was now, looking for, uh, somebody to donate a kidney. And there was a number that you could call if you were interested in, getting tested.
Catriona: And I called the number and. I think somebody called me back later that day and said, oh, you know, thank you for calling, but we've actually found a match for her, or somebody has volunteered to be a match for her. And I was relieved and I thought, great. You know, I had the instinct, but you know, somebody else is going to do this.
but they asked me if they could keep my number on file in case anything happened. And so I was like, sure. You know, and actually that evening I came home and, um, I talked to my, then husband and I remember him saying to me, he was a little perturbed because I hadn't had the conversation with him.
Catriona: I mean, we talked about her situation when I'd heard about it, but he was, you know, why would. Think to do something like that without talking to me. And then he was like, I'm pretty sure they're gonna call you back. I have a feeling. and then maybe, uh, a month later This gentleman called , And, um, he said, you know, I have your number on this file, I'm calling because the person who had volunteered to donate a kidney.
basically has decided they don't wanna go through with it. And if you're still interested, we'd like to fast track, the process to see if you were a match for her. And I said, yes, I'll do that. You know, and it was a very kind of instinctual response And within a couple of days we realized like I was pretty much a perfect match for her. within like three weeks, all the testing was done.
So I think it was maybe at the end of June or beginning of July that I got the go ahead.
Catriona: that I was a match and that I had been approved They wanted to do the operation, as soon as possible, because her condition was not greatUm, so it was all happening pretty fast. And I'd sort of mentioned it to a couple of my really close colleagues. And, of course husband at the time was aware and my siblings, but it wasn't really until like the two weeks before the operation that I started to share the information and.
you know, start preparing myself.
Catriona: So it was 2017, my sons were nine and 11 at the time. And, um, you know, I mean one of the things that occurred to me and my husband was, you know, that we needed to check that they were healthy and that their kidneys were in good shape. Right. Just in case anything would ever happen that they would, you know, possibly be in a position to need a transplant.
you know, once you give one away, there's none left to give away. But it seemed like Everything was fine. Um, but I had a lot of anxiety about whether I was doing the right thing for my family or even for myself.
Catriona: You know? I mean, it's a very safe operation and if you're in good health, pretty routine. Um, but you know, any time you have surgery, there's risks, right? That you might not foresee. But I somehow felt, and I'm not quite sure why that. Needed to help her. you know, if, if I was in this position, who would help me?
You know, and somebody had to help her, once you find out that you're a match for somebody, it's very hard to walk away from that. not that I ever have any regrets about doing it, quite the opposite, but I still look back on that time and I'm like,
was there something else that I, you know, my father was very unwell at the time and you know, sometimes you feel helpless because you can't help somebody you love and like sometimes I'm like, maybe it was some sort of idea that by helping this person that you know, that would be some sort of karma to help my dad.
I mean, I do believe that like the more goodness and good energy you put in the world like that, that's doesn't need to be come back to you. It comes back to somebody, you know, or even the fact that maybe if I was willing to do this for somebody else, that that might inspire somebody to do something, whatever, not, maybe not give a, a body organ, but, you know, inspire somebody to do so.
Catriona: for somebody else in their life, you know, where they could make a difference.
Catriona: So the journey was very profound for me because it gave me a different perspective on, on my life. , you know, how fortunate I was to have my health and then, in turn how fortunate I was to possibly be able to, help this person have you know, a good life.
it was important for me to meet, her before the surgery. there was this weird thought in my head that like, if anything were to happen, I wanted to have seen her, you know what I mean?
Catriona: Or and her to have seen me, you know? and she was very reluctant. I think the main reason she was reluctant is that she had had somebody, you know, who was willing to donate and then change their mind at the last minute. And maybe she thought that if I met her, that I might change my mind, you know?
I do think she said to me at one point that it occurred to her that I was, you know, making this decision to donate to her despite her other challenges and that I might decide that, you know, even if I was willing.
Catriona: donate a kidney, maybe I would choose somebody who was maybe in a, a different, more healthy position to get the most out of it, you know, so I think it was a very scary and unnerving prospect for her to meet me. But I did meet her and I think it was maybe the week before the surgery we met. near my office and I was really nervous and I'm sure she was as well.
I remember her walking in. She was wearing her prosthetics but, if you didn't know what had happened to her, you. not think that there was anything different about her. You know, she's, um, a really powerful person and she just is so courageous and, So, yeah, I was so impressed by her poise and it was a very easy meeting.
it felt like she was somebody that I knew already. You know, it wasn't, wasn't strange or weird. we had like a great conversation about our kids and you know, she was kind of, Surprised and shocked that somebody who didn't know her a complete stranger, was willing to do this for her.
Catriona: I remember leaving and I'd been having a lot of anxiety up until that moment about the surgery, but as soon as I met her, I felt completely at peace with my decision.
I just hope it works. You know, you never know. Right. , I think there has been cases where there's been transplants and the kidneys just don't thrive.
Catriona: And I just remember praying like that it was gonna work. You know that this was gonna work for her.
the surgery, I mean, one of the things that I was most concerned of was the general anesthetic. so that was my big anxiety that day. I don't think I saw her before the surgery. maybe briefly. I don't know. It's a little bit of a blur,
Catriona: I remember this funny moment where they actually brought the rabbi in to see me and to bless me, which was kind of funny for, you know, this Irish Catholic to, you know, have the rabbi come and, and visit me, it was kind of a quirky moment. Um, and, um, I was both terrified and kind of elated.
but I was definitely very scared going into the surgery. this just seemed so surreal, you know, that I'd gotten to that point and that this was gonna happen. And maybe elated is the wrong word, I know sometimes when you're anticipating something, you know, , you have all of these different feelings about it, and then you're finally there.
yeah, it was a very weird feeling. It was both fear, terror and kind of excitement, you know? And the idea that, this was gonna be something that was really great for her.
the surgery was pretty straightforward for me. , I woke up feeling Like I'd been hit by a bus. it's very strange to have an elective surgery like that, you know, because your body does go through a lot of trauma. Like, that's the truth, right? when I woke up, I was a, I was relieved that I woke up cuz I, one of my fears was that I wouldn't wake up. So I was like, okay, I woke up, I'm alive.
Catriona: That's great. And then I was kind of, Just taken aback of where I was and what was going on around me and just not feeling great. Um, and then I remember, um, Spen coming in and I think I've, the first thing I said to him was like, how, how is she, how is she doing? And I think he, he said like, it was complete success.
Everything's great. She's great. And then I think I cried
the first day was kind of a little bit unsettling because once I was sort of finished in recovery, they couldn't find me a room. So I remember this weird thing where I was really drugged up, but they were like rolling me around the hospital trying to find me a, room or a bed, and it was just really, unnerving, and I was supposed to have my own room and they put me into this room with this other person who was really unwell.
that was a little jarring.
Catriona: But finally they found me a spot and it was great because the next day my little sister, NASA came kind of unexpectedly to, be there with me. And, you know, I started feeling better and I, um, I think I got out of bed the next day and then all the surgical team came to see me and you know, everything.
great. I was great. Everything had gone perfectly. She was doing great. and then I was, I was headed home and I mean, by two days later I felt good. I had some painkillers, but I wasn't taking them much and I was just excited to go home.
see the boys and you know, I actually took a month off work. I think usually you can take more than that. You think you can take up to 12 weeks with this sort of surgery. But I, I told them at work I would only need a month and I,had a pretty quick recovery by like a week later.
It takes a while to get back on your feet, but, and I, I'm a pretty active person and you know, I love doing physical things and doing yoga and working out and I remember actually a few days after I came home.
We went out for, some lunch some of my friends came and I had like a half a glass of rose and I could not get home. everything, just the walls were spinning around me. It took me a while to get my equilibrium back, but for anybody who's listening, who's thinking of doing this, , it's not a difficult recovery.
It just, that first week is a little bit of a, you just have to adjust yourself to not feeling a hundred percent. But by a month later, I was back at work full-time and I felt great and I, you know, I really took care of myself a few months afterwards and I kind of felt better than I had ever in my life.
I'm not sure whether it was like the joy of having done it and it being such a success for her, or whether it was I just was taking better care of myself and I was more aware of how healthy I was and I was eating really well and just, you know, I felt really, really good.
I think as soon as we met prior to the surgery, we, just connected, you know, and I never imagined going into it that, you know, we were gonna have a friendship or connection and I thought it would be something, you know, where we would maybe, , send each other messages on the anniversary of the donation or, something, you know, I didn't think it would be what it became, which is kind of one of the deepest friendships, relationships of my adult life.
it was kind of gradual. but it just, became this connection and that summer we had the, the surgery was in July and that summer we all ended up being out at the beach and we went to visit, her and her family. and I think that was the first time that the boys, all the boys had met.
Catriona: And it was just so surreal because as soon as they met, they had this, her kids are a little bit younger than mine, but they had this sort of instantaneous connection and they, it was just so easy and natural and, I think maybe then we both realized that, you know, this was gonna be maybe. something that was, you know, more than just a cursory relationship, you know, and then it just built from there.
And we stayed in touch. We ended up People Magazine, which is the magazine that I worked for at the time, asked if we wanted to do a story about the donation, and we did, which is a little surreal. . I hate getting my photograph taken despite my job, . but we spent a day together with the kids and our, husbands but it's, it was a little weird, like at that time I did a video about it as well, and I started being a little conflicted about,
the attention, you know
I didn't do it to get attention. I did it because I wanted to help her.
and then there was a point after we did that interview and the video for the magazine that I just started to feel a little uncomfortable for me. I can't quite put my finger on it, but just, you know, and I also think for Ilysa you know, her story is not what happened to her or the kidney donation.
She's, you know, got an amazing. life and an amazing career, and obviously she's just a lot more than that story. And I felt sometimes if I spoke about it, that this story does not define who she is. Right. And definitely does not define who I am, but I'm torn sometimes because I do realize that, being somebody who, went through and donated an organ, Survived and thrived afterwards can be inspiring for other people to think about how they might be able to do that as well.
sometimes she says to me. You know, you saved my life. it's such a weird thing. it's hard for me to fathom that idea, to be honest. It's easier for me to think about that, like, you know, I helped her live a better life, or, you know, I expedited her recovery. I mean, I'm pretty confident she would've gotten a kidney donor at some point, but I'm glad that I was able to. that summer.
Catriona: So she had thatsummer. that time with her kids. You know, she'd had a very traumatic year, since everything had happened to her, and her life had just been changed so drastically. I don't, the lifesaving part of it is kind of weird for me. I actually never think about that.
it's a difficult concept for me to grasp, you know? but if I had the opportunity to do it again, I would do it again. I mean, when I see her, And I just saw her last night with her kids and she's the most amazing mom and friend and human being. And, God, it gives me so joy.
it's just such an amazing. feeling. It's not that I feel responsible for it at all. That's not what I mean. But it's great to see somebody, you know, thriving I wish I was clear about what the complex emotions are for me about it, because I have no regrets about it, I'm so glad I did what I did and I did it then.
Catriona: I mean, maybe I feel like I just, not that it matters what people say, but like I don't want people to think that. I was feeling like I was playing God, because I never felt that, I just felt like this was a really practical thing that I could do to help somebody who needed help and they needed help in that very minute.
. I think that anybody who has any empathy, who knew that they were able to help somebody else, I would hope that they would be able to do that. Right? I mean, we all need help sometimes in our lives, everybody. And it's always interesting the people who step up to help you.
Catriona: Sometimes it's the most surprising people, and I've found that in my life too. It's. Unexpected the people who are there for you when you need them.
a lot of people were very concerned and kind. didn't understand why I was willing to do this at the time. some people were quite cynical about it and a lot of people were very supportive.
Catriona: But I would say that the most supportive was actually my own family. And it's interesting cuz like I've heard from other people that, you know, when maybe they've been in a position to do something similar. , their own family would be the one who would be most concerned. But my dad was so supportive and so proud and so happy, and maybe it was because he was struggling with his health and that he was really able to relate to the fact that I was able to do something for somebody else to make their life better and,
I remember my mom she sent me this quote and it was from, um, Kahlil Gibran uh, was, it says
"You give but little, when you give of your possessions, it is when you give of yourself that you truly give."
And that really struck with me, you know, and it was. to have, you know, I come from a big Irish family and none of them questioned me. they were like, wow, you have the opportunity to help somebody.that's what you do. You know? I think that was really important for me that they were supportive
But as I said, you know, the last few years have been very challenging in different ways, and in some ways Ilysa's life and my life have sort of echoed each other in various ways. And, um, you know, I don't have family in New York where I live now, and you know, she's like my sister.
I, we call each other our kidney sisters. You know, we just have a connection that's a little bit different than my other friendships, you know, I'm really grateful for that. It's a really, Super unexpected bonus to this
I thought we would justyou know, be somebody that knew each other and you know, had this very intense experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we had to be friends or close, you know, it just turned out to be that case that we. have developed a very deep connection since summer of 2017.
I think one of the things that was a little unexpected was that, my children saw me go through this and.
they both always say to me when we're older, you know, that if the opportunity is ever needed, that they would, would, you know, lo love to do what I did for somebody else and.
Catriona: I love to think that, you know, part of this process was them learning about empathy and how we each have it in ourselves to profoundly help other people, even people that we don't know,
Jamie: Thanks so much for listening to this week's episode. Catriona Ni Aolain is a professional photographer who has been the director of creative content for magazines like Rolling Stone, People, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Journal, Health, and more. She lives in New York City with her sons. You can see some of Catriona's powerful photography on her Instagram.
The link to her handle is in the show. If you enjoy this show and the work that we are doing to highlight women's stories, please leave a rating or a review on Apple or directly on our website. This episode and all of our work is supported by our incredible League of Women.
At the end of 2022, we invited women leaders to help us expand and elevate this podcast with their time, talent, and resources. Our League members include Fredda Herz Brown, Carrie a Ahern, Christine Shook Sister Monica Clare, Dawn Roode, Elizabeth Doerr, Kara Garner Pass, and Karen McNeill. This podcast is produced by me, Jamie Yuenger, and my husband Piet Hurkmans.
Thanks so much for listening to If You Knew Me. We'll be back with you next week.