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Kidney transplant helps Auburn resident find new purpose

Valen Keefer advocates gift of life - organ donation - the cause that saved hers
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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SIERRA DONATION SERVICES/DONATE LIFE BLUE AND GREEN CONTEST

Take a picture of yourself wearing blue or green and post it on the Sierra Donor Services Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SierraDonorServices, or emailing it to

.

Pictures must be uploaded on April 19, and be the original work of the person posting the picture with permission.

A drawing on April 22 will determine a contest winner who will receive a two-night stay at the Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Airport.

 

To become an organ donor, sign up at the Department of Motor Vehicles when renewing or applying for a driver’s license or sign up at donatelifecalifornia.org

The colors blue and green will carry a message on Friday, and an important one for Auburn resident Valen Keefer as a messenger of the cause that saved her life.

April 19 is National Blue and Green Day, so named for the colors of Donate Life, a non-profit coalition of advocates for organ and tissue donation across the country.

As an ambassador, spokeswoman, blogger and personal benefactor of the cause through various outlets, Keefer, now 30, has made a point of championing organ donation since it afforded her the chance more than 10 years ago.

Then a resident of York, Penn., Keefer was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease when she was 10 years old. Among the most common life-threatening genetic diseases, PKD runs in her mother’s family and compounded other health problems Keefer endured from childhood through high school including seizures, pancreatitis, scoliosis and back surgery.

The disease forced her to trade college for regular hospitalization at Hershey Medical Center at age 18, and then at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a last resort. Her kidneys were removed when they grew to the size of footballs in January 2002, and she spent the next eight months on daily dialysis. Keefer said the dialysis, combined with more than 70 blood transfusions that year, took a considerable toll on her body.

Though doctors said she had become too frail for a kidney transplant, they began searching anyway, and a flood of support from family and friends produced two viable matches. One was a 20-year-old friend, and the other, whom doctors said was most ideal, was family friend Sally Robertson.

Keefer said she had been friends with Robertson’s daughter since eighth grade, but such generosity from an unexpected source made a permanent impression. A donor’s gift and a doctor’s skill saved Keefer’s life on Aug. 13, 2002, and it’s a date, and a lesson, she will never forget.

“Several people had stepped forward to get tested to see if they could be an organ donor, and a friend of the family, Sally, wound up being a really good match, and she donated her kidney. It’s what I really needed to restore my health and stay alive, because they didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “It’s just amazing what the gift of life can do, and how it can restore a person.”

Rejuvenated both in body and spirit by the successful transplant, Keefer quickly discovered what she wanted to do with her newly-extended future.

“I’ve dealt with health issues since I was five years old … so I didn’t really know what I was capable of. I was always dealing with being sick. So after I received this transplant, I learned of the PKD Foundation, and they had asked if I would speak at a convention. I had never spoken in front of a convention before,” she said. “And that’s how I learned of my love of public speaking and my love of helping people.”

Keefer moved to Auburn with her husband in 2010, nervous about leaving behind the sense of purpose she had found at the PKD Foundation, but an answer to that came quickly, too.

By winning an essay contest about how transplantation had changed her life, she was given a seat on the “Donate Life” float in Pasadena’s annual Rose Parade and subsequently became a volunteer ambassador for Donate Life California. Keefer was one of 12 women chosen by Donate Life America to share their stories as part of a “20 million in 2012” campaign to register 20 million donors that year, appointed national spokeswoman for University Kidney Research Organization in Los Angeles and became an ambassador for Sierra Donor Services in Sacramento.

She has also taken to writing a weekly inspirational blog for the PKD Foundation at www.pkdwillnotbeatme.com.

Though she is now coping with herniated disks in her spinal column as a result of scoliosis surgery, Keefer has lost none of her zeal and has no ambivalence about her mission.

California’s organ donor registry reached 10 million people this year, but she hopes Blue and Green Day will inspire more. Living proof of the day’s message, Keefer said each donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and enhance 50 through tissue donation.

“I look at everything I’ve been through as a gift, and I’m thankful for it, because that’s why I am here and do what I do,” she said. “I’m alive because of (Sally). I’ve had more than 10 years of amazing life because of her, so I live every day to make her proud. I want her to be proud of me and the decision she made to give her kidney to me, and I want to set the best example that I can to encourage other people to be organ donors and to show that their gift is life-changing.”