By Angelo Lynn
Mei Mei Brown, one of Brandon’s best known and prolific volunteers needs a kidney, but the message she wants to convey is to broaden the awareness of the process around organ transplants and the vital importance it has to those in need.
“It’s very touching and humbling” to be in the position of needing a donor organ, she said in an interview last week, explaining that she has lived a full and active life, even after she was diagnosed at 59 with polycystic kidney disease. It’s an inherited disease with parents having a 50% chance of passing it on to their children.
Now 66, Brown said she either needs a kidney transplant in the near future, probably by the end of winter, or she will go on a kidney dialysis machine — a process that takes several hours per day to perform at home (after extensive training) or up to half a day each day at an area hospital. Brown has been on the waiting list for a kidney for the past 36 months. And that’s not unusual. The average wait time for a kidney, she said, is 31 months.
A bubbly, energized and engaging woman, Mei Mei, as everyone calls her, seemingly has unlimited energy when you meet her, and talks in rapid fire, succinct comments that go right to the point.
“It’s hard to advocate for yourself,” she admitted. “I don’t like to put myself front and center; causes are what I want to put front and center, not me.”
And that is what she’s done most of her life.
In her early years, she and her husband, Bruce, 74, lived at the Branbury State Park where Bruce was state park ranger for a number of years. Following that stint she worked as a dispatcher for the state police from 1979-93, then was the coordinator for the District 1 Environmental Board that oversees Act 250 for 14 years from 1993-2005.
While Bruce had served many years on the Brandon Planning Commission and Select Board, Mei Mei’s service has been widespread throughout Rutland and Addison Counties. She founded and has spearheaded the Brandon Feral Cat Assistance Program since 2005; she volunteers for Homeward Bound, Addison County’s Humane Society; she is president of the board of directors for the Rutland County Humane Society.
“I’m the crazy cat lady, I tell everyone,” she said with a hearty laugh, explaining that she’s worked to spay or neuter more than 600 cats in the Brandon area, reducing the feral cat population in the town to what used to be a runaway population to just one or two annually now. “Everyone knows about the program, and I receive a call or two a year as soon as a foreign cat comes into the neighborhood. It’s been a very successful program. I wish every town would adopt it.”
While cats and books are her passions, — “I love books, and I read and read and read,” she said — she’s helps in other areas of the community, including volunteering for the Brandon Public Library and she’s currently president of Safer Society Foundation, a program to prevent sexual and social violence.
About the organ donor process, she said, she’s learned that only about 10% of prospective donors make the cut, either because of their own health reasons, age differences that are too great, or other reasons — and that’s for those people who match up with the recipient’s blood type and body antigens and antibodies. Brown has type A blood, which means she can accept donors with Type A or Type O blood, the most common. For potential donors, all costs associated with screening, testing and the transplant surgery are covered.
People are born with two kidneys, but only one is needed.
“We were born with a spare, and don’t need them both,” Brown said with a big smile, but added that she understands how big a commitment it was to be a donor. Donors usually need to be within 15 years in age of the recipient and not over the age of 72, with some exceptions, Brown said. That means most of her prospective donors will be between the ages of 72 and 51.
“It’s a huge commitment because even though each person has two, you never know when you might need the other one, or perhaps need to be a donor to a close family member,” she said.
Friends and acquaintances were among the first 16 donors who were each rejected for one reason or another. “I am just so grateful and humbled for each person who has done this for me, and I’m glad the guidelines (in terms of it being a healthy and safe procedure for both people) are so strict for their sake.”
If a known voluntary donor doesn’t come through, Brown explained, those needing donors are on lists for organ transplants from a cadaver, but that can be a lengthy and trying process with thousands of people on the waiting list and a 48-hour grace period to find a match and get into surgery. Brown said she had been third in line on one occasion and had gone through a rigorous preparation (along with two others ahead of her) only to learn that the organ never arrived at the hospital.
Nonetheless, Brown carries a pager with her wherever she goes 24-7. She’s now on the kidney transplant list at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Anyone wanting to be screened for a kidney donation should contact Cathy Pratt, the coordinator for living donation and kidney exchange, at 603-653-3931.
While she’s waiting for a donor or potential call, Mei Mei remains active, upbeat and thoughtful. “It sounds cliché, but you realize that life is really fragile and you need to seize each day and live life to the fullest,” she said, “just live like there’s no tomorrow.”
As far her day-to-day health, she’s feeling fine as of now.
“My doctors are really impressed with me being as healthy as I am, so far, considering the poor function of my liver,” she said. “I get tired, but otherwise, I can’t complain. I try to be one of those people who believes the glass is half full. I want to be as optimistic as I can be; no sense dwelling on the negative.”