In 1995, Betsy Walsh donated a kidney to her older sister.
Ten years later, she’s the first donor – and the first person who is not a doctor or nurse – to be elected president of the board of directors of the national United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).
Walsh, vice president and deputy general counsel for Winston-Salem-based Novant Health, began her one-year term as president this month.
“Nearly 20 years ago, access to a transplant enabled my family to move from a health care crisis back to normal life,” Walsh said. “I plan to spend the next year supporting the hundreds of dedicated UNOS volunteers and staff members working to increase access to transplantation for others in need.”
Walsh was just finishing law school at Wake Forest University in 1995 when her older sister, Judy Jones Tisdale, learned that she needed a kidney transplant. Tisdale had gone to a drugstore to have her blood pressure checked. It was dangerously low, and she was referred to a kidney specialist at Wake Forest. That’s where she learned infections from her childhood had caused irreversible kidney damage.
Several relatives were tested, and Walsh was “as close to a perfect match as you can be without being a twin.”
In those days, Walsh said doctors didn’t know much about the side effects of being a living kidney donor. Her biggest question was how it would affect her ability to have children. They couldn’t say for sure, but Walsh now has two daughters, ages 7 and 9. “I answered that for myself,” she said.
Tisdale, who teaches business communication at UNC Chapel Hill, still has her sister’s kidney and remains healthy, even while taking heavy doses of drugs to prevent rejection.
From 2003 to 2006, Tisdale served on the UNOS board at the recommendation of her doctor, who had been president. As she was leaving, Tisdale recommended her donor-sister for a board position, starting in 2006.
As president, Walsh now heads the activities of UNOS, a nonprofit that has a federal contract to serve as the nation’s organ procurement and transplantation network.
One of her goals is to increase the number of organ donors. UNOS has been involved in matching donors (both living and deceased) with recipients in about 600,000 transplants of all organ types. Last year alone, the agency set a record with about 30,000 transplants, Walsh said.
“That’s terrific but that’s not enough,” she said. “More than 20 people die per day waiting for an organ.”
One way to expand the donor base is to broaden the criteria. Because transplant centers are accountable for patient outcomes, they may be unwilling to accept organs from older people or others who might not be perfectly healthy. “We need to find a way to be more encouraging to the centers to think beyond just the most perfect donors,” she said.