Maggie Gilliland, left, donated a kidney to her brother, Walter Makamson.
Maggie Gilliland, left, donated a kidney to her brother, Walter Makamson.
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Donate Life Day celebrates gift of organ donation

Published on Friday, April 14, 2023

By: Ruth Cummins

Photos By: Joe Ellis/ UMMC Communications

Walter Makamson is a country boy. He’s a third-generation farmer, working 8,000 acres of corn and soybeans in the Mississippi Delta.

His musical tastes might seem mismatched with his livelihood. His sister Maggie’s kidney, however, is his perfect match, regardless of what she listens to on the radio.

“My favorite song is Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody.’ Dr. (Felicitas) Koller did my transplant while she was playing my song,” Makamson said of his June 7, 2022 surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Portrait of Dr. Felicitas Koller

“I told her, ‘I’ve watched ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ enough to know you’ve got a playlist, and while you’re gutting me like a hog, I want you to play ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody.’ Dr. Koller said, ‘Yeah, that’s number four on my playlist!’ I came into the operating room, and she was dancing.”

If not for Maggie Gilliland’s decision to give her big brother one of her kidneys, 38-year-old Makamson would probably still be on a waiting list for an organ from a deceased donor. The Greenwood residents’ story, and those of other transplant patients and donors, were in the spotlight Friday when UMMC Grenada, the Medical Center’s sister hospital that cares for Makamson and dozens of other pre- and post-transplant patients, celebrated Donate Life Day with the program “The Gift of Life.”

Sponsored nationally during April by Donate Life America, Donate Life Day encourages the public to wear blue and green and share the message of the importance of registering as an organ, tissue or eye donor. It’s also a month-long, festive observance across the country and at UMMC Grenada, where hospital employees, patients and community members concluded their 10 a.m. ceremony by releasing green and blue balloons.

Walter Makamson is pictured with his sister and kidney donor, Maggie Gilliland, far right, and transplant care team members that include, from left, transplant coordinator Mallory Lester, social worker Becky Smith and transplant nurse practitioner Dr. Ashley Seawright.
Makamson is pictured with his sister and kidney donor, Maggie Gilliland, far right, and transplant care team members that include, from left, transplant coordinator Mallory Lester, social worker Becky Smith and transplant nurse practitioner Dr. Ashley Seawright.

As an outreach arm of the state’s sole transplant program, UMMC Grenada’s transplant clinic “makes patient care and the ability to get a transplant more accessible to our rural communities,” said Mallory Lester, a registered nurse and nationally certified transplant coordinator. “Some of my patients tell me they love the small-town feel and being able to get the same quality of care right here in Grenada as they would at UMMC in Jackson.”

The clinic’s patients come from a large region that includes not only the Grenada area, but all of north Mississippi and parts of Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama, Lester said.  “We are able to evaluate patients to determine if they are kidney-pancreas transplant candidates. We also treat them here while they’re on the waiting list, and we give them follow-up care after they receive their transplant in Jackson.

“Our transplant providers from Jackson come three times a month to our clinic to see patients,” Lester said. “Patients also can get bloodwork and testing done here. Our providers are so kind and gracious with them. They treat our patients like they are gold.”

In addition to Makamson and Gilliland, speakers at today’s program included UMMC transplant surgeon Dr. Praise Matemavi, surgical director for kidney transplantation; Nikki Little, UMMC’s living donor transplant coordinator; Grenada resident and church pastor Tim Herrington; and Herrington’s fellow church member, Beverly Archer of Duck Hill, who gave him one of her kidneys.

For much of his life, Makamson has struggled with polycystic kidney disease, and his kidney function had dipped below 14 percent. The genetic disorder claimed his grandfather and resulted in his grandfather’s daughter, Makamson’s late mother, getting a successful kidney transplant.

But Gilliland, who shares a father with Makamson but has a different mother, is free of the disease that causes the kidneys to enlarge due to clusters of cysts and lose function over time.

Transplant nurse practitioner Dr. Ashley Seawright, center, and registered nurse transplant coordinator Mallory Lester discuss follow-up care with kidney transplant recipient Walter Makamson of Greenwood.
Seawright, center, and Lester discuss follow-up care with Makamson.

The mom of kids ages 9 and 6 had no qualms about being a donor for her brother, whose four children range in age from 11 to 2. Makamson’s wife Anna let family know a donor was needed, “but he would never ask anyone to do it,” Gilliland said.

Extended family “lined up,” Makamson remembered. But, Gilliland was the logical choice to be evaluated. Makamson’s other siblings weren’t candidates. His wife wanted to donate, but she’s the wrong blood type, Makamson said.

“We have other siblings, but he and I were always a team,” said Gilliland, an occupational therapist at North Sunflower Medical Center who also is a family farmer. “I knew at a young age I was supposed to take care of him, and that I was supposed to give him my kidney someday.

“I remember very clearly: I was in carpool to pick up my kids, and God saying for me to sign up. That it’s my time. I started the process to be a donor and wasn’t going to tell Walter, but he had gotten so hopeless. I told him he needed to have hope.

“I was 100 percent certain I would be a match. I was really cocky,” she remembered. “When I got the letter that said I was a match, Walter didn’t know. I tried to call him and he was in a meeting, so I texted him the letter. He couldn’t stop crying.”

Less than six months later, Makamson had surgery. Matemavi, an assistant professor of transplant surgery, removed Gilliland’s kidney. Koller, an associate professor of transplant surgery, nestled it into Makamson’s abdomen. It was one of 16 live donor kidney transplants performed at UMMC in 2022 out of a total 137 surgeries.

“It requires a moment of vulnerability on the patient’s part to make the ask for a kidney,” Koller said. “They have to say, ‘I’m sick. This is something I need.’ And the person who receives the ask needs to reflect and say, ‘Is this something I want to do?’

“And even if you don’t qualify to give a kidney, you can be an advocate to support someone involving a donation,” Koller said. “It’s not just giving a piece of your body. We can all be living donors with our time and advocacy.”

Today, Makamson and Gilliland are both doing well, and Makamson receives his follow-up care with providers including Lester and transplant nurse practitioner Dr. Ashley Seawright, whose many duties include serving as clinical director of transplant and surgical oncology.

“I’ve had, hands down, the best care and the best doctors and the best nurses and the best scenario I could have dreamed of in this experience,” Makamson said. “Family and community and church mean a lot when something like this happens. It’s been an overwhelming blessing.”

Makamson is a special patient, Koller said.

“It fit him perfectly,” she said of the Whitney Houston hit song. “It’s his sense of exuberance and joy. He’s getting a new chance at life.”

For information on both living and deceased donation, call University Transplant at (601) 984-5065 and choose option 4.