Kristi Nelson sits at the head of her table while a TV cameraman interviews her friends and family members, seated for a Sunday dinner.
Her mother, Jo Helen Nelson, leans over and says, “I’ve been doing a lot of these interviews. I’m getting pretty used to it.”
As a reporter/anchor for NBC DFW, Kristi Nelson is no stranger to the camera. She faces it every day at work, bringing news to the station’s viewers. But this time is different.
This time, Kristi is not just telling the story; she is the story. Nelson, who was born and raised in Oak Cliff, decided earlier this year to give her mother a kidney. She and her mother went into surgery Aug. 18, the day this magazine went to press.
Jo Helen Nelson, 69, has kidney disease, which was brought on by diabetes. So she spends about 12 hours a week in dialysis just to stay alive. It is difficult to convince her to admit it, because Jo Helen does not like to complain. But life with kidney disease is not fully life, she says.
“Of course, it’s still your life, and you still feel happy,” she says. “But you’re tired and listless, and you don’t feel like going anywhere. I do what I absolutely have to get done, but I’d rather be at home lying down.”
No one asked Kristi to donate a kidney to her mother. And she didn’t volunteer right away. In fact, no one in the family had really talked about her mother’s illness before.
But Kristi knew that her mother was waiting for a kidney, along with millions of other people, and the wait list is at least five years long. Jo Helen had acquired infections through dialysis, which is not uncommon. And Kristi wanted her mom to have a better quality of life.
When Kristi told her childhood friend, Coretta Turner, about her decision, she said it like this: “I want my mom to live.”
“What child wouldn’t want to do that?” Turner says. “But that’s a heavy emotional decision right there.”
That’s why Kristi didn’t rush into the decision. Turner encouraged her to slow down and make sure she was really feeling OK about it. So she told her mom she would give her a kidney, and she would let her know when she was ready.
And when she finally decided to have the surgery, she decided she had to go public with it, too. Putting herself and her family in front of the news cameras was uncomfortable for Kristi. But she knew their story could help other families dealing with kidney disease.
“As I learned about kidney disease, I realized how little I really knew about it,” she says. “And most people don’t know a lot about it. But it’s a very prevalent disease.”
African Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with kidney disease than people of other races. African Americans constitute 29 percent of all kidney disease diagnoses but only 14 percent of the population, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
“I just know that my story will connect with someone out there,” Kristi says.
Not only is Kristi donating the kidney, she’s also taking four to six weeks off work to help her mother recover. She says she’s looking forward to that stretch of quality time with her mom. Jo Helen has everything in the world to look forward to, from shopping to taking trips.
“Perhaps I can go on a cruise,” she says. “I’ve got plans, girl.”
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