Interwell Social Worker Makes Gift of Life Enabled by Donor Leave Policy

When Sandy Williams’ friend Frank needed a kidney, she didn’t think twice about becoming his donor - but the journey was not without its challenges. Fortunately, a new Interwell Health program allowed her the time she needed to fully recover at home without any of the financial burden.

April 18, 2024
5 minutes
Sandy and Frank cycling

The decision to become a living organ donor isn’t easy. The journey is often time-consuming and marked by financial challenges because of pre-operative testing, travel, and time off from work.

Yet for Sandy Williams, an Interwell Health licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), giving the gift of life was a choice she felt compelled to do because she had seen first-hand the significant impact chronic kidney disease (CKD) has on patients and their families.

The waitlist to receive a cadaver kidney in the U.S. is long—nearly 2 years— and Sandy knew there was an urgent need for more people to be living donors. “In the back of my mind, I planted the idea that if there was someone who had a need and I could help them, it would be something I would be more than willing to do,” she said.

"The combination of this program and the support of the leadership made me feel that I could give this gift and take the time I needed to fully recover and not worry about anything.”

Stepping up without hesitation

In 2015, Sandy met Frank Marquez, a biomedical technician at a dialysis center, and quickly became friends with him and his wife Phaedra, a dialysis nurse.

Four years later, while they were training for a 3-day bike ride fundraising event, Frank started to open up to Sandy about his health struggles. He explained that he had CKD, and he may have to go on dialysis one day. Without hesitation, Sandy told Frank that if he ever needed a kidney, she would love the opportunity to help him. “Frank has such a big heart, and is so thoughtful, kind, and giving. I thought who better to offer the opportunity of organ donation?” she said.

Frank and Phaedra were surprised by Sandy’s offer, particularly because she had three young children. When two other potential donors were not matches, Frank felt assured that Sandy wanted to be his donor. “It was to a point where she wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” he recalled. “I told her, let’s do it and I’ll support you one hundred percent.”

The journey to donation

Donating a kidney involves a lengthy screening process. For Sandy, it included information about her health history, family, psychosocial support, and why she wanted to be a donor. She also had to undergo several medical tests and conduct interviews with a nurse and social worker.

Once the process was complete, Sandy received a call from the coordinator at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to tell her the good news: not only was she a candidate, but she was a match for Frank. I immediately ran down the hall to Frank’s office and told him 'we are a match, we can do this!' and we both started crying,” she said.

The next step was for Sandy to complete additional testing at UCSF which included an ultrasound, EKG, and appointments with a nephrologist and the transplant team.

After four months, Sandy was cleared for surgery, but the process proved to be more difficult than she and Frank anticipated. Frank was experiencing heart problems, and ultimately had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery and later, cardiac rehab. The transplant surgery was on hold, but Sandy’s commitment to donate her kidney never wavered.

“Over the course of three years while we waited for the surgery, I never doubted my decision,” she recalled.

In 2023, Frank was finally cleared for surgery, but since it had been so long, Sandy had to undergo most of the screening process again. On Frank’s birthday in June, he and Sandy were told they were finally cleared for the transplant, and surgery was scheduled for the following month.

Before her surgery, Sandy learned that Interwell had joined The American Society of Transplantation's (AST) Living Donor Circle of Excellence program, offering employees who are living donors eight weeks of paid leave. As a company that believes in transplant as the best treatment option for those with kidney failure, this program makes living organ donation a feasible option for employees who want to give the gift of life.

“The timing could not have been more perfect and it gave me peace of mind knowing that I didn’t have to worry about applying for disability and having a loss of income,” she said. Sandy said her leadership was also very supportive and told her to take her time and heal. “The combination of this program and the support of the leadership made me feel that I could give this gift and take the time I needed to fully recover and not worry about anything—it was such a blessing.”

Surgery at last

It was the day of surgery but while Sandy was in pre-op, Phaedra asked her, are you sure you want to do this? Yet Sandy says fear never entered her mind. “I was confident, happy, and excited. I really wanted to give this gift to Frank and his family,” she said.

Both surgeries went well and over the next few days while Sandy and Frank recovered, they took turns visiting each other’s rooms and walking laps together. “It was such an emotional experience and apart from having my children, the best experience that I’ve ever had,” she said. 

Sandy, Frank, and Phaedra group pic

Healing at home

Once at home, Sandy had some pain at the surgery site and throughout her body. She had to modify the way she slept, experienced fatigue, and didn’t have much of an appetite. Walking was part of her treatment plan and although she was an avid runner, she found herself struggling to do a lap around the neighborhood. “I really had to allow myself and my body the time that I needed to heal,” she said.

After six weeks, Sandy was back at work and feeling much stronger. She continued to experience some pain and fatigue, but after just four months, she was fully back to her normal way of life and running routine.

As a result of her experience, Sandy says she now has the unique opportunity to share her story and support the patients she works with who have advanced-stage kidney disease.

“Having that opportunity to educate patients about the benefits of live donation, break down some of the barriers and misconceptions, and tell them I understand, has been a wonderful feeling,” she said.

Today, Frank has returned to a normal way of life, and feels a sense of freedom knowing he can travel without having to worry about dialysis. “There’s an overwhelming gratefulness that I have and I thank Sandy every day,” Frank said.