Woman donates kidney to Army Veteran at Houston VA

In November 2022, Amanda Houlton was lying in bed when she felt God ask her to donate a kidney to a Veteran in need.

“Something told me, it’s time,” said Houlton, who lives in upper Michigan. “You need to donate your kidney. So, I shot up in bed and I typed in the national registry for kidney donation and something told me to…donate to a Veteran.”

Four years earlier, she was prepared to donate a kidney to her brother, Army Veteran Damon Lambert, who was diagnosed with kidney disease after returning home from Iraq.

Young Army soldier

Army Veteran Damon Lambert

“I was a match for him and remained on stand-by,” she said. “He just couldn’t get healthy enough. He was having dialysis three days a week and finally, enough was enough for him.”

In late October 2018, her older brother died at the age of 46.

“He had really bad PTSD, but he pushed through it and put himself through prosthetics school,” said Houlton, 49. “He just had the biggest heart and he loved his country. His country meant everything to him.”

Three months earlier, Houlton also lost her mom.

“It was a big blow,” she said. “When they passed, I got angry.”

But Houlton followed through and registered to be a donor with Living Kidney Donation for Veterans (DOVE), a non-profit organization that strives to match living donors with Veterans. Then Houlton waited, not knowing who the recipient would be.

A retired Army officer in Arizona

From 1976 to 1999, Lt. Col. David Hardaway (Ret.) served as a logistics officer, which included a six-month combat deployment to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm/Shield.

After the Army, he briefly returned home to Arkansas where he grew up on a farm and completed ROTC at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He then moved to Phoenix, where he still lives with his wife and 28-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy.

During a check-up at the Phoenix VA, Hardaway was diagnosed with renal insufficiency, which slowly progressed into stage four kidney disease.

On a waiting list to receive a kidney, Hardaway was encouraged to register with DOVE.

“A friend of mine told me about DOVE,” said Hardaway, 70. “She asked me to contact them to see if they might be able to help me.”

Eight months ago, he registered with DOVE and needed a willing donor that shared his rare blood type.

In late 2022, DOVE called Hardaway to let him know a woman in Michigan was not only identified as a match but had agreed to donate.

Houston VA Transplant Center

In 2008, Michael E. DeBakey VA in Houston began performing transplant surgeries for Veterans across the country including both deceased and living donors.

Jennifer Hamilton, Houston VA living donor coordinator, meets with potential donors and provides education about every step of the process.

“Kidney transplants are safe,” said Hamilton. “I talk with the living donors and let them know we’re going to do everything to protect them and here’s how we go about it.”

She also strives to ensure every detail is as seamless as possible for the donor and recipient. Hamilton worked closely with DOVE to coordinate the transplant and arranged for travel and accommodations for both Hardaway and Houlton.

“Maybe not on their end but on my end, it was effortless,” said Houlton. “I got my itinerary and got on the plane. Nothing was complicated.”

Hardaway and Houlton (pictured above) both arrived at Houston VA on Feb. 20 and up until then, they had not met.

“We met. We talked. We cried.”

“I walk up to the counter to check-in and the clerk said, ‘Would you like to meet your donor?’,” said Hardaway. “We can’t meet each other unless we both agree. I said I would love to. We met, we talked and we cried. It was just a beautiful feeling.”

Man and woman with table number 26

Table number was also their donation team number

The next day, Feb. 21, Houston VA performed the living donor kidney transplant, the first from a DOVE donor.

“All donors are altruistic but this donor did not know the recipient at all,” said Dr. Venkat Ramanathan, chief of the Houston VA Transplant Center. “It’s powerful. I want to give special thanks to Jennifer Hamilton, Dr. Jenny Pan and the entire transplant team for making this happen.”

Hamilton has worked as a living donor coordinator for over 20 years and is still in awe that it is possible.

“I’m still stunned that you can take a kidney out of one person, walk to the next room and put it in somebody totally different,” she said. “I think it’s just a miracle that people want to donate and it doesn’t have to be a biologically related person.”

Post-surgery, Houlton wanted Houston VA staff to know how special they are.

“I was sitting in the transplant waiting room and a janitor was dumping the trash,” she said. “A doctor walked by and he said ‘Hey, good afternoon, how are you doing.’ That doctor acknowledged him and showed him so much respect. It was right at that moment I knew I was right where I was supposed to be. Houston VA is amazing. You guys have done your job and went beyond it.”

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