PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Five year ago to the day is when Bridgette Gilliland’s life permanently changed. She was taking a break from graduate school to visit her mother in Tuscan, Arizona when she began feeling nausea, a symptom she had been experiencing for a couple of weeks. Gilliland thought little of her symptom, figuring it was probably due to stress from finals, but her mother said she should get it checked out by a doctor.
Then on the morning of May 23, 2015, Gilliland awoke to realize her vision had gone black and her mother rushed her to the hospital.
“That’s when we found out I had total kidney failure. I was started on dialysis that day,” Gilliland told KOIN 6 News. Her vision had returned after only a few hours.
Gilliland said her only chance of survival is for a kidney transplant from a living donor and is ineligible to be on the waiting list for deceased donors due to medical complications. Most patients on dialysis don’t make it past the five year mark after starting treatment, she said, but she’s hoping to hold out just a little bit longer to find the right match and hopefully one day return to a normal life. She has type A blood and needs an A or O blood donor, for which she’s still searching.
Gilliland was only 26 at the time she succumbed to kidney failure and was finishing up at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. for a Master of Science in Foreign Service. She had lead a healthy lifestyle up until the kidney failure, having been a champion high jumper and spending her summers at Oregon Ducks Track Camp in Eugene. She hadn’t so much as broken a bone and hardly visited doctors offices, besides completing sports physicals, her entire life.
Her life was rich with adventure and promise. Gilliland was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Macedonia in 2012 and even modeled briefly in New York City. At the time she first started having nausea symptoms, she had been working at the Hollings Center in D.C., a think tank that focuses on U.S.-Middle Eastern relations.
Now Gilliland said she is disabled from having to go through dialysis treatment non-stop for the past five years. She said the doctors could not identify a root cause for the kidney failure.
“Dialysis is very painful. It’s physically taxing. I’m on the machine for four hours or so every week, three times a week. And then you feel sick usually afterwards. So usually asleep or feeling sick about 12 hours after treatment.”
Gilliland shared with KOIN 6 News her patient registration form with Fresenius Kidney Care Mt. Hood in Gresham, where she currently receives treatment. She had moved to Portland from Tuscon in August. On the form, the subsection for “Co-Morbid Conditions” is circled: Cancer.
After being on dialysis for about two years, Gilliland said some of her pain and sickness symptoms returned in 2017.
“We weren’t really sure what was happening and then they found out I had breast cancer,” she said.
Luckily, doctors caught the cancer early and it was still at a low level . Gilliland said she got a lumpectomy on her right side and entered treatments for cancer for two years. She finally recently got approved to be eligible for a kidney transplant again after she recovered enough from the cancer.
However, her being in recovery from cancer made her ineligible to be put on the deceased donor list so now she must find a living donor willing to give one of their kidneys to her. Gilliland said doctors told her a healthy person can live a pretty much normal life even with only one kidney, but there is a lot of medical criteria that must be met beyond just matching in blood type.
Gilliland’s father, who also lives in Portland, was a blood type match and was set to donate but then he began a battle with cancer that rendered him ineligible. A window of opportunity for the father to donate was missed early on in her condition because doctors in Arizona told her not to travel, she said. Early treatment complications in Arizona rendered her in the intensive care unit with two collapsed lungs and relying on a ventilator at one point.
Gilliland said doctors told her receiving a transplant early usually gives patients the best chances of survival and returning to a normal life and that a co-morbidity, such as cancer, arising in people with kidney failure undergoing dialysis is common.
Two childhood friends–one in Portland and one in Arizona–are currently being vetted for seeing if they can donate but it is far from a guarantee. Even though they are both O blood types, there are a multitude of other blood characteristics that also have to match and each potential donor must also not have certain health complications in their history in order for the transplant to be successful.
“I have two people, which is good. But we don’t know if they’re going to be a match. And so they said if you can get any other people to test, that would help your chances,” said Gilliland, whose transplant center is Legacy Good Samaritan in Portland. “It’s a lot of pressure because I have to get a transplant. And it’s like, I don’t know where to find a kidney. It’s a lot of stress.”
In addition to battling cancer and kidney failure, Gilliland is also considered a medically vulnerable person in the age of the novel cornavirus. It means that if she catches the virus, the chances of her dying from it are higher than the average person.
For that reason, Gilliland pretty much completely isolates herself from other people, besides the folks at the dialysis treatment center. She said they take extra precautions wearing masks and wiping down equipment before and after patients come in and out.
Gilliland said the ticking clock is never far from her thoughts.
She asks that anyone who is interested in being her kidney donor, or knows someone who can help, to contact her at her cell phone, (520) 358-7735.
Follow KOIN 6 for the latest news and weather