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Why this woman donated one of her kidneys to her classmate

Not everyone would give a classmate a body part – but one Napier woman did exactly that. Megan McChesney reports. 

As far as strange sights go, it was up there with a fleeting glimpse of Bigfoot. Two young men were driving on SH1 through South Waikato in the dead of night when their headlights caught something woolly lying in a ditch on the side of the road.

In the few seconds they had to take in the vision, they thought it was a sheep, bizarrely trussed up to resemble a human being. They pulled over into the gravel and one of the men jumped out for a closer look. “It’s not a sheep,” he yelled out to his mate. “It’s… a child.”

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It was July 1, 1989 and the boy lying dazed and bleeding in the ditch, wrapped in a fleecy blanket, was 10-year-old Michael Batista. Just hours earlier, Batista had been helping his family pack up for their move from Auckland to Napier.

As the eldest sibling, his job was to keep his grandfather company in the massive removal truck they’d hired to transport their possessions.

Batista still remembers the lights of the highway reflecting off the wet asphalt as the city disappeared in the rear-vision mirror. The truck rumbled through the night and, in the early hours of the morning, somewhere out of Tokoroa, he fell asleep against the door.

Michael Batista and Pagan Moon. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw.

It’s assumed the blanket he’d brought to keep himself warm had caught in the catch – in an instant, the door swung open and he plummeted to the ground. Then, just as swiftly the door swung closed again, leaving the older man alone in the cab with the sedated family dog, Pepe, snoring heavily beside him. The World War II veteran was deaf in his left ear from a gunshot blast and didn’t hear a thing. It wasn’t until he stopped a half-hour later to get petrol that he realised his grandson was missing.

By that time, Batista was on his way to hospital: the truck’s rear wheels had crushed his left leg seconds after he’d tumbled from the cab and weeks later, when he was finally roused from a medically induced coma, it was to the news that his leg had been amputated.

“It didn’t sink in much,” says Batista. “I was heavily sedated and once the haze was gone, I quickly got used to having one leg. I never dwelt on it. I just got on and lived the life I could with what I had.”

After he was roused from a medically induced coma, Batista learned his leg had been amputated. Photo/Getty.

He was fitted with a prosthetic but because his leg had been removed at the hip, he had no control over the artificial limb and eventually he decided “to live a life where I’m not having to drag this thing around”. He’s used crutches ever since.

What had a far greater impact on Batista’s quality of life was the effect on his organs. Infection ravaged his young body for months after the accident – so much so that at one point, he needed dialysis to help his kidneys deal with the barrage of toxins coursing through his system. Years later, in his final year of high school, doctors warned his kidneys were slowly deteriorating.

“I was like, ‘I’m young, I’m invincible,’” says Batista. “I just went on doing my own thing until one day, in my early 20s, it happened. I needed a transplant.”

By then, Batista had a young son, Jayden (who’s now 15), and the stakes for staying alive were even higher. “The call went out to the family: Michael needs a kidney,” he remembers. Batista’s uncle was a good match and the transplant operation was performed at Auckland Hospital before he needed dialysis. “I was deeply grateful,” says Batista. “I still am.”

Within weeks of the transplant, his life had returned to normal and Batista hardly looked back. “I came home and sort of forgot I’d had a kidney transplant, just continued with my life.”

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His relationship with his son’s mother had ended, but he remained a hands-on dad. He was passionate about motor mechanics and as far as he was concerned, having just one leg posed few physical barriers (he mows his own lawns and paints the interior walls of his house). But as the years rolled by, he found few employers were willing to take on an amputee.

“It was heartbreaking,” says Batista. “I knew I could do the work. Sometimes I’m a bit slow, sometimes I need help with heavy objects or whatever, but I’m still competent with what I do. Still, I was turned away from every avenue in the automotive field.”

In his early 30s, he decided to change direction. “I’d been creating art for a very long time. I had a small fan base among my friends and family and they were encouraging me to take it further.”

He enrolled for a diploma of visual arts and design at Napier’s Eastern Institute of Technology. From his first day at tech, Batista found a gang of like-minded souls who “all sat in a row, making art and cracking jokes with each other”. Pagan Moon, a single mum of four, was one of them.

Moon recalls striking up a conversation with Batista because she liked his Marilyn Manson T-shirt. Batista remembers she was a decade or so older than him and he was surprised she even knew who Marilyn Manson was.

Soon after starting at tech, he received the unwelcome news that the kidney he’d received from his uncle around 10 years earlier was failing fast. He was 34 and needed another transplant. The first step in managing his condition was to go on dialysis.

In New Zealand, most dialysis patients spend three days a week, for five hours or so at a time, tethered to a machine that carries out the natural work of the kidneys. While it’s possible to continue on dialysis indefinitely, the clinical director of the National Renal Transplantation Service, Dr Nick Cross, says the risk of heart attacks and strokes increases substantially. Many patients also find they lack energy, feel constantly itchy and thirsty, and experience “brain fog”.

For patients well enough to undergo surgery, a kidney transplant is by far the best option. Around 500 New Zealanders are on the waiting list at any one time – the actual number who need transplants is much higher – and the average wait for an organ from a deceased donor is three years – although it can be much longer. The first port of call is to find a live donor.

Unfortunately, most of Batista’s family had been ruled out the first time round (generally due to medical reasons or because the blood type didn’t match). He hated the thought of asking his friends but soon realised it was either that, or take his chances on the deceased donor waiting list.

Moon, meanwhile, had been watching her friend deteriorate for months. “You could see the colour of his skin wasn’t right. He was starting to get bloated and he had dark rings under his eyes. I thought to myself, ‘He looks like he’s dying.’ He looked that sick.”

One day Batista arrived at tech feeling desperate. “Agh,” he grumbled. “I need a kidney.” Moon volunteered that he could have one of hers. “And I was like, ‘hahaha’,” recalls Batista. “I didn’t really think it would progress more than that.” 

But Moon was serious. She checked with her four kids – including her then six-year-old daughter Grace – and started the process of medical screening. Batista was astonished someone he’d known for such a brief period of time would be so generous. “I was always asking, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? I will fully understand if you want to back out’. But once she’d made the decision, there was no stopping her.”

For Moon, it was straightforward. “He was a friend and when you’re close to somebody, how can you sit back and just watch them get sicker and die when there’s something that you can do about it?”

Finding a match for kidney donation is a simpler process than bone marrow donation, where the two parties’ immune system tissue types have to be identical. “For kidney donation,” says Cross, “the donor and the recipient just need to be blood-group compatible. The biggest issue is having a willing donor without any health issues of their own. For example, you can’t donate if you’re overweight or have diabetes or other things that might affect your own kidneys down the road.”

In Batista’s case, around 10 family members and friends came forward for screening, and Moon was eventually told she was the best candidate. She broke the news to an “ecstatic” Batista one day at tech. He immediately said he didn’t expect her to go through with it if she got cold feet. However, it wasn’t until just before the operation that Moon says she experienced some collywobbles.

"He really needed a kidney… [and I had] two big, fat, juicy ones."

“But there was no way I was going to let him down. I knew life on dialysis was not wonderful and life expectancy on dialysis is not great, either. He really needed a kidney… [and I had] two big, fat, juicy ones.”

On October 9, 2013, Batista and Moon wished each other well as staff at Wellington Hospital prepped them for the transplant. When they finally saw each other a couple of days later, the difference in Batista was striking. “I immediately felt amazing,” he says. “I was sort of bouncing around the place going ‘Yeah!’ I had a whole new lease on life.”

Pagan Moon, left, pictured inset is Michael Batista. Photo/The Lip.

For Moon, recovery was much slower. “I haven’t really told anyone before, because I don’t want to put anyone else off doing it. But you’re supposed to have a catheter into the site for local anaesthetic and mine was not put in.

“I was in so much pain and it took me longer to recover, so I was transferred to the maternity ward. I was wandering around the corridor bent over with my big swollen tummy because they blow you full of air to do the operation. You can imagine, I’m hobbling along, bent over and there’s all these dads with their wives in labour looking at you sympathetically as if you’re in labour...”

With a family to support, there were financial considerations, too. On December 5 last year, live organ donors became eligible for 12 weeks’ loss of earnings assistance from the Ministry of Health. But for Moon, there was little government help. Instead, fellow art students rallied around with various activities, including an art auction, and raised $700 to help keep the wolf from the door as she recuperated.

She was told she might experience some grief for the lost organ. “But it was the opposite. It’s hard to explain how it feels to save somebody’s life unless you’ve actually done it. But just to know you’ve been able to do that is really rewarding… better than any gift money could buy.”

Batista is one of just a handful of patients Cross has heard of to receive two live kidney donations. Just 5% of transplant operations performed each year are repeat transplants and of those, virtually all are from deceased donors.

Batista and Moon are still friends. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw.

His good fortune is something he considers every day. Each year, on the anniversary of the transplant, Batista, 39, writes a tribute on social media to Moon, thanking her for giving him a future and this year the pair, who both still live in Napier, will mark the fifth anniversary of the life-giving operation.

“I don’t think our friendship’s changed at all,” says Moon, 50. “I don’t think he owes me anything – although when I see him, I think, ‘Oh, there’s my other kidney!’ When we have coffee, my kidneys are still synchronised so we always have to go to the bathroom at the same time.”

Batista adds, “She always says, ‘You don’t have to thank me.’ And I always say, ‘I do have to thank you.’ I’m very fortunate that Pagan was there for me. I will always be grateful and I’m never not going to be thankful.” 

The Lip

An audio version of Batista and Moon’s story has been made by The Lip – a New Zealand podcast of extraordinary true stories, produced by journalist Megan McChesney. The Lip is free and all episodes can be found at thelippodcast.kiwi, on iTunes or Stitcher.

Megan McChesney is a North & South contributing writer. This article appeared in the March 2018 issue. 

Information on kidney donation can be found at kidneydonor.org.nz.