Giving a Piece of Herself
December 2, 2009 |  by Andrea Appleton

Pamela Paulk, Bus ’04 (MBA), ’05 (Cert)

Walking down the hall at work one day, Pamela Paulk, vice president of human resources for the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, ran into her colleague Robert Imes. Imes, a painter/mechanic in Facilities at Johns Hopkins and a photographer for Johns Hopkins events, is also a union delegate. He and Paulk knew each other from years of working on union issues. Imes had just returned from a 10-month sick leave for kidney disease, and on this, his first day back, Paulk asked if there was anything she could do. “Well, I could use a kidney,” Imes joked. Then Paulk did something shocking:  She offered him one of her own.

Organ donation had been on Paulk’s mind for nearly a decade, ever since she observed a kidney transplant. She recalls the moment the surgeon attached the gray, seemingly lifeless donor kidney—which had been flushed of blood—to the recipient’s receiving artery. “It turned from no color to the color of that lampshade,” says Paulk, pointing to the deep magenta shade. “And tears started going down my face. It was just amazing.” When Paulk walked out of the operating room, she was shocked to see the donor already sitting up and talking. “I thought then this is something I might want to do.”

But, Paulk says, she couldn’t be an “altruistic donor,” someone willing to donate a kidney to any needy recipient. “I needed to have a connection to the person,” she says. So she waited, while she earned an MBA at night from Johns Hopkins and began teaching at both the Carey Business School and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. And then came Robert Imes. “My mom always said, ‘If you have it to give, you give it,’” Paulk says. “To her, keeping something that you didn’t need when somebody else needed it would have been wrong.”

Paulk turned out not to be a compatible donor, but Johns Hopkins surgeons had a solution. The pair ended up as part of a 16-patient, multicenter operation, known as a “domino donor” transplant. The procedure involved a complicated mix and match between pairs of donors and recipients around the country. On June 22, at the age of 55, Paulk donated her kidney, which was flown to a recipient in St. Louis, while Imes received a kidney from a donor in Oklahoma City.

These days, both patients are back at work and feeling fine. Imes was out for three months, but Paulk only missed a month. She hopes telling her story will help raise awareness about organ donation. She wears a “Donate Life” pin on her lapel and encourages everyone she meets to sign their donor cards and talk to their families about it. “If you lose a family member to a tragedy,” she says, “your tragedy can become someone else’s miracle.”