Debbie Doster is a longtime kidney patient at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. For the last two years, her kidneys have been functioning at approximately 19%. Almost a year ago – after a series of interviews with medical staff there – she was added to kidney transplant list; but in late November she received a call informing her that she had been removed from that list.
Tuesday morning (January 4), Doster appeared exclusively on "Sandy Rios in the Morning" on American Family Radio to share her story.
"You have to have a recommendation from one of their specialists in order to get on the [transplant] list," she explained, "and [my doctor] said he would recommend me to the kidney and pancreas transplant board for consideration. That was in February 2021. I was just delighted – and the process started."
After numerous donor applicants, that process resulted in one match. But according to Doster, the process is now on hold. "Because on the last week of November they removed me from the kidney transplant list for failure to take the COVID-19 shot," she told Rios.
Doster said the coordinator who delivered that information to her didn't provide a satisfactory explanation for the decision – so she asked that her intake interviewer contact her. During that subsequent conversation, she received this explanation:
"He explained that it was the policy of the medical center to require recipients to be vaccinated in protection of themselves and others; and protection of that kidney …. These organs that are being donated are so valuable … to life that they don't want to lose one single organ. So, when they transplant an organ into a person, they follow the life of that organ until the death of that recipient."
"It's almost as if the kidney is living rather than the human."
Her reaction? "I understand their thinking from their perspective; I can see that and I can empathize with that – but then when I evaluate the research … it's not substantiated at all."
The Tennessee woman explained that two letters (one from her, one from her pastor) appealing the Medical Center's decision have been denied, but forwarded further up the administrative ladder. She's hopeful for good news. "So, we're just sitting on hold, just waiting to see if it would be reversed," she shared.
Initially, Doster was told by the transplant coordinator that she was the only person they have dropped from the kidney transplant program. But she just learned on Monday that that's not entirely true.
"There have been maybe two others in my position – one other, for sure – who had a living donor that was a perfect match, and they denied it. And now they've reversed their course and decided to grant it," she concluded. "The Lord has just flooded me with information in the last 24 hours – my eyebrows are still up in my forehead thinking, 'This is crazy.'"
Tuesday's interview in its entirety (audio version)
Sandy Rios: Let's talk about your situation and where you are with this kidney disease … then we'll talk about who you are and what you do. What's the function of your kidneys right now?
Debbie Doster: I am stable at the moment. For about the last 24 months, I've been hanging at 19% function, which is enough to do what I want to do. I am not on dialysis yet. I've had a marvelous specialist with Vanderbilt University who has taken care of me for the last ten years – and he is the one who recommended me to the kidney transplant list. So, I'm just holding steady … it just started to plummet about ten years ago, and now I've kind of stopped at 19%.
S: What should it be?
D: You reach a place … I've forgotten, at 60 you start to lose one percent of function for each year you live past 60. So my mother is going on 86, and her function is still about 68% of function, which is normal (for her age). So, yes, I'm a long ways from that. My disease is also idiopathic; they've run tests on kidneys, ultrasound, CT scans. There are no tumors or cysts. Idiopathic meaning we don't know why your kidneys are dying – but we have to maintain what you have as best we can. So that's what we've been in, is a maintenance mode.
S: You told me (during a private phone conversation) that you were a basketball player. Did you play professionally?
D: No, I've just always been an athlete. My whole family, all of us were athletes. I'm the oldest of four – and I played one year of high school back in the day. Most of your listeners are younger. Back in the day when it was just guards on one end [of the court] and forwards on the other end. I was a guard, and I went to Murray State as a walk-on when there was not such a thing as a walk-on female. In 1973, Title IX was just rolling in, and I played at Murray State University in Murray, KY, and lettered four years; was an honorable mention All- American. And there was nothing ever officially sent to me – I just got a letter in the mail that said you had been nominated. It was a lot of fun … and I wouldn't trade that for a million dollars. It was a lot of fun; I played against Pat Head Summit; she was a UT-Martin in Tennessee, and I was at Murray State. Just a neat time. You didn't know you were making … I didn't make history, but Pat certainly did. And it was just a great time. And then I had a knee injury that kind of slowed my career down, but still it was a wonderful experience.
S: But you have remained active all these years. You were telling all the things that you do now. What is it that you're doing now that you're able to do?
D: Well, I do anything that I want to do. My joints have paid the price. When you play college sports, you're going to give up some health; not always, but a lot of the time you – especially us females – we have knees that give out, we tear ACLs and we tear meniscus and all these types of things. But you can get them repaired when you're my age. He told me if you can make it to 65 you can have a knee replacement, which I had 3 weeks ago today. And I still train horses; I ride my horse – I just bought a new one, and we rode in the Shawnee National Forest on Thanksgiving weekend. I just put on a [pain] patch and off I go. But now I hope to ride with less pain. So, I do whatever I do – and that's what my kidney specialist said. He said, "Deb, live your life the way you would live it if you didn't have a single care in the world." Of course, I approach in that way as a Christian – Jesus has given me an abundant life. I have no complaints. So, I just rock on, staying active and I hope to ride when I'm 85.
S: Let's briefly touch on the fact that you have your PhD in Education. Were you an administrator, a teacher … what did you do?
D: I was 14 years in the classroom, teaching physics and math. For a short time I taught math – and mostly when computers moved into the classroom, I was right at the beginning of that. My director of vocational education set up the first computer lab in west Tennessee, back in 1987 maybe … and I taught students how to use the computer, and how to do a little bit of programming, how to use WordPerfect – that was the first word-processing program – those types of things. Yes, that was way back. But then I moved to a classroom at the high school when they closed down the vocational center, and I taught those same subjects at the high school level. Then I decided that I wanted to advance myself and began to pursue other degrees, thanks to my parents – they helped me financially with that – and earned a master's in education and a doctorate in education from Trevecca Nazarene University. And that gave me the kind of income I needed so that I could retire whenever I got ready to retire. I was a principal for a year, and then [when] I was working as a teacher [someone] called me and asked if I would consider coming back to Weakley County [TN] as a supervisor of instruction where I would have about 125 teachers, and I would evaluate them and hire. That's how I finished out my career, in supervision and administration.
S: It's obvious, even when I just talk to you … it's not just your mind; you're so vital. Your life is vital, you are healthy except for this kidney; and you're active and your mind is still good. I think you told me that your doctor does not want you to go on dialysis because you are so active and healthy – and that's not true of everyone who has this problem. So, your doctor recommended you for a kidney at Vanderbilt University, where you've been getting this great treatment for all this time. Tell us about how that happened and what happened subsequently.
D: My specialist is a delightful man and he's so brilliant. He has just left Vanderbilt on December 30 to go to Salt Lake City, Utah, and continue his practice there. So, I'm losing a great friend and a great specialist. But you have to have a recommendation from one of their specialists in order to get on the [transplant] list; and he said he would recommend me to the kidney and pancreas transplant board for consideration. That was in February 2021. I was just delighted – and the process started and I would receive phone calls from the office of the board. And we walked through that part of it, and we – my husband and I – had to have an about two-and-a-half-hour to three-hour meeting with various members of the board; and then ultimately, we finished the interview with Dr. Anthony Langone. He's delightful … that whole place, I owe my life to Vanderbilt and the good Lord Jesus Christ. Because Vanderbilt pulled me through Stage 3 breast cancer in 2013; and now I'm depending on them and their expertise, along with the moving of God's hands, for my kidney failure. So, I had a delightful interview [with Langone] and the next thing I know I'm getting contacted and they said, "We are placing you on the kidney transplant list." That was like the very last week of February . So, I've been riding right along – I've had numerous people who have sent in applications to see if they are a match to donate a kidney; because I did put it on Facebook, I teach a Bible study most every Tuesday … I've taken 3 weeks off because my knee pain has been so great; I can't think straight these last 3 weeks … and my listeners on my Facebook Live Bible study they just come out of the walls and sent in applications to see if they are a match. So far, I've had one match; I don't know who they are … that's fine. But now that's on hold because on the last week of November they removed me from the kidney transplant list for failure to take the COVID-19 shot.
S: Did they explain to you how your failure to take this shot would affect their consideration in giving you a kidney? What's their reasoning? Do they even bother to explain to you why you don't qualify? How can it be anything beyond punitive? What could possibly be the medical reason … do you know?
D: Well, the coordinator – and of course it is subjective, in my opinion – the coordinator didn't provide me a satisfactory explanation. So, I asked her to please ask Dr. Langone to give me a call – because he did conduct my intake interview himself. It wasn't any other member of the board, it was the director of the board. And he did call me, three days later, and we talked at length; and he explained that it was the policy of the medical center to require recipients to be vaccinated in protection of themselves and others; and protection of that kidney. Donors, these organs that are being donated are so valuable – I'm not talking about financially – to life that they don't want to lose one single organ. So, when they transplant an organ into a person, they follow the life of that organ until the death of that recipient – and it's almost as if the kidney is living rather than the human. Now, Vanderbilt's got like a 99% survival rate with their transplants – which is incredible. So, they want to make utmost surety that the person who's receiving that organ is going to be successful; and in their belief system, they believe that it's necessary to have the shot. So, I understand their thinking from their perspective; I can see that and I can empathize with that – but then when I evaluate the research … it's not substantiated at all.
S: This [vaccination protocol] is nonsense. So, you have appealed back to them, and we've been working on getting other people involved in this. Where does it stand right now? Do you have any hope that they will reverse their decision?
D: I've heard nothing from them since the coordinator phoned me and told me I had been denied. We did a couple of phone-tag thingies, and when we finally got together and talked, she told me I was definitely denied and they were forwarding my letters of appeal. As Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel has explained on your program, it's fine to [submit] a religious exemption request – but then when they ask you to submit support for your letter you're continuing to go out there and grasp for things … and they did ask me for a letter from my pastor. So, I sent in two letters, and both letters were denied. I don't know if it's just a protocol thing, but they have moved my two letters – my pastor's letter and mine – to the 'big board' [which] in my mind is kind of like an umbrella of Vanderbilt University Medical Center board has that, and they don't know when they're going to meet or how they're going to rule on it or if they'll just go with the recommendation of the lower board, which would be the kidney and pancreas transplant department. So, we're just sitting on hold, just waiting to see if it would be reversed.
S: You issued this religious exemption letter and they rejected that – and are you not the only person they have dropped from the kidney transplant program, as far as you know?
D: As far as I know. That's what I was told by the transplant coordinator. Now I have since learned that is not entirely true. There have been maybe two others in my position – one other, for sure – who had a living donor that was a perfect match, and they denied it. And now they've reversed their course and decided to grant it.
S: Was it over the vaccine status?
D: I just got that information yesterday afternoon. The Lord has just flooded me with information in the last 24 hours – my eyebrows are still up in my forehead thinking, 'This is crazy.'
S: Here's what I'm going to say, and this is coming just from me – not from you [Debbie]. If you are in Tennessee, or if you've ever been a patient at Vanderbilt and have interests there, this is time to let their phones just ring off the hook. You can be polite, but you can also be angry and not be rude – because this is ridiculous. They are actually putting someone at risk for their life on purpose at the outside chance that if they give this kidney to Debbie, she may not survive because she doesn't have the COVID shot – when we see that people who have the COVID shot are still getting COVID. This is just nonsense; it's not medical, it's not scientific, it's arbitrary, it's punitive, and there's no excuse for it …. The medical establishment has gone off the rails; that doesn't mean all the doctors have – but many of them have. It's been one of the greatest disappointments of my life, and it puts all of us at great danger. Right now is the time to shout loudly that this needs to stop. I'm recommending those of you who have connections to Vanderbilt or who live in Tennessee and you have a vested interest in your state and in their great reputation as a worldwide and world-renowned medical facility that this needs to stop …. Anything else that you want to say about where you are with this? Some final words?
D: As a Christian, I study other Christians – and when Eric Metaxas came out with his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I read that book through twice. And Dietrich's friends and cohorts of that time said 'When I called out, there was no one left for me.' And it was because we turned our heads at the beginning, thinking 'Well, it doesn't affect me. I'll just look the other way.' But then when it comes your time, there's no one to stand up for you. So, as you said to me and gave me such encouragement: If this is nothing else than to help someone else, then we need to stand up. If it's not for you, if it's not for me, then someone else may have no help in the future … so we must stand up.