By Tori Mason

DENVER (CBS4) – A Colorado woman’s transplant denial due to her COVID-19 unvaccinated status caught the attention of organ transplant advocates nationwide. Unvaccinated patients in Colorado who are in need of organ transplants are being offered help from across state lines.

Dawn McLaughlin was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease at age 16. Her father had the disease and also needed a kidney transplant. Her kidneys weigh 17 and 21 pounds. The average healthy kidney weighs about 5 ounces.

“They’re covered in cysts, so when a cyst ruptures it’s like a kidney stone. It’s very painful,” said McLaughlin. “I’m in a hurry, not only to get the new one, but to also get these guys out so that I can live a normal life.”

Dawn McLaughlin

(credit: CBS)

McLaughlin has been on the transplant list at UCHealth since 2018. She found a living donor and was on track to get a transplant. She recently learned she couldn’t receive her transplant because she hasn’t gotten the Covid vaccine.

“When I talked to my kidney doctor, he was saying that he wanted to wait a little bit. This was when the vaccine first came out. There were people having adverse reactions,” McLaughlin. “He said if it becomes something that I believe in down the road, I can go ahead and get it at that time. For right now, I’ll hold off. It’s just following his advice.”

Last week, McLaughlin learned that UCHealth had placed her on the inactive list for a transplant because she wasn’t vaccinated against COVID.

UCHealth recently implemented the policy to protect the health of its patients.

In a statement, UCHealth said:

For transplant patients who contract COVID-19, the mortality rate ranges from about 20% to more than 30%. This shows the extreme risk that COVID-19 poses to transplant recipients after their surgeries
UCHealth and transplant centers across the nation have requirements in place to protect surgical patient

The story of another woman denied a transplant from UCHealth made its way across the country. A nonprofit in Texas reached out to the Colorado woman in the initial story and offered to help McLaughlin after they learned about her situation.

“The COVID vaccine has become so political. If they don’t get a transplant, they’re going to die anyway. The whole thing is silly to me,” said Rodney DeBaun, founder of the Niklas Organ Donor Awareness Foundation in Texas. He also received a live-saving heart transplant.

He’s connecting patients like McLaughlin to a hospital in Dallas that’s willing to perform transplants on unvaccinated patients.

“UT Southwestern is a world-renowned hospital. They’re not requiring a COVID shot to get a transplant. Another hospital requires a shot. Who’s to say which hospital is correct?” asked DeBaun. “Her hospital is saying we’re not going to give her a chance at life because she doesn’t have a COVID shot.”

UT Southwestern told McLaughlin they only require a rapid COVID test before they conduct the transplant. The asked for her vaccination record, but did not turn her away because she wasn’t vaccinated against COVID.

“It’s a personal preference there. You have to sign a waiver and it says they recommend the vaccine for these reasons, but if you choose not to that’s your choice,” said McLaughlin.

DeBaun’s foundation is willing to help McLaughlin and other Coloradans scrambling to find another hospital in other states. The cost of an out-of-state transplant is more than most can afford.

“We provide transportation and free apartments for families who need to travel to the Dallas/Fort Worth area for an organ transplant list. We give a place to live while they’re going through that process,” said DeBaun. “We can’t solve all their problems, but we’ll give you a free place to live. That’s one less thing they have to worry about.”

McLaughlin had started looking into a hospital in Arizona before DeBaun offered help. She says their help has been a miracle.

“You have to stay in that state for at least a month because when you get a transplant, it doesn’t work right away. You have to continue dialysis until the kidney starts functioning. You have to be watched closely. You’re back and forth, about three to four times a week, just for the testing and to make sure everything’s good,” said McLaughlin.

“They reached out to me and said not only are we going to take care of getting you there and bringing your husband out to be with you, but we’re also going to bring out your donor and we’re going to give you a place to stay for a month rent free,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin is already in the process of transferring her records.

“I could have a kidney as a Christmas gift. That would be amazing,” said McLaughlin.

Tori Mason