She was the first, and she keeps on giving. Joyce Roush, one of the first women in America to donate a kidney to a stranger, speaks out about her life’s work: healthcare for all.
by Mick Kelly . portrait by Matt Rose
In her 40s, nurse Joyce Roush was working with families at what is arguably the worst moment of their lives: the critical hours after a relative is pronounced brain dead and the family must decide whether or not to donate the body’s organs. Roush, who grew up in Indiana and had worked in hospice care, was then with the Indianapolis-based Indiana Organ Procurement Organization. Today, she lives in Flat Rock and works as a wellness coordinator for Park Ridge Hospital. Having been a practicing nurse for 35 years, she won the Athena Award from the Asheville Chamber of Commerce this spring for one of her life’s missions: providing healthcare to people in dire need.
The award was given partly because, in 1999, Roush took an extraordinary step in that direction: she donated one of her kidneys to a total stranger, and was the first person in America to do so publicly (according to news reports at the time, the University of Minnesota announced that a 50-year-old woman also gave a kidney to a stranger, but she and the recipient both requested anonymity).
Roush remembers precisely where she was sitting when the thought first occurred to her. In 1998, at a conference on organ donation, she heard a presentation by Dr. Lloyd Ratner, who had developed a procedure for extracting a kidney with a laparoscope. This meant the surgery—which previously required a full-day operation and left large scars—would leave minimal scars and take around six hours. After the speech, she raised her hand and later approached him. “As soon as I heard him talk, it was like—I can do this. I can give a kidney,” she says.
The transfer was still far from simple. It took docs and medical ethicists more than a year to clear Roush for the operation, sending her through physical testing and psychological evaluations. Finally, in August of 1999, a team working on her case found a recipient for her kidney, a 13-year-old Maryland boy. Because of the media attention surrounding Roush’s donation—she was interviewed by TV crews and written up in People and The New York Times—she ended up meeting the kidney recipient, who remained healthy and in contact with Roush for years after the transplant. At first, she was anxious about talking to the media, but eventually, she embraced the idea. She felt she could raise awareness about kidney donations to strangers. “I was determined to tell people that it could be done easily,” she says.
Now 57 and a picture of health, she spends her days running Park Ridge’s Wellness on Wheels program, giving check-ups to anyone who needs them. She and fellow R.N. Tracey Payne, treat and test patients five days a week in Henderson, Buncombe, Transylvania, Madison and Polk counties, often seeing underprivileged people who can’t afford exams. Roush describes the Park Ridge wellness van, which is decorated inside with drawings from patients, as a “37-foot doctor’s office on wheels.” Last year, according to Park Ridge, nurses in the van conducted 13,616 screenings. Around 30 percent of the clients screened were at risk for developing heart disease, a stroke, prostate cancer, osteoporosis or diabetes.
What bothers Roush most about America’s broken healthcare system is that there’s simply no affordable care available to the working poor. “It breaks my heart,” says Roush, who spends her free time cruising the countryside on a Yamaha motorcycle. “The people who are on government assistance qualify for government care, but the working poor do not. They simply can’t afford healthcare and are suffering the most.” Her modest upbringing by working-class Midwestern parents taught her much about working for the betterment of others and is what fuels her to spend her career reaching out to those in need. “One of my dad’s favorite sayings was: you want to look back and know you’ve left the world a little bit better. I want the world to be a better place because I was here.”
To learn more about the Wellness on Wheels program at Park Ridge, go to www.parkridgehealth.org and click on Community Programs.