Our Stories: Alaska Pilot Forever Changes Coworker’s Life

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer

To say that B-737 Capt. Jodi Harskamp (Alaska) “gives of herself” is putting it lightly. On March 13, the Anchorage, Alaska-based pilot selflessly donated one of her kidneys to Jenny Stansel, an Alaska flight attendant. Stansel, who has been battling chronic kidney disease for about 15 years, had taken a turn for the worse. Confronting end-stage kidney failure, she was on medical leave from the airline so that she could undergo the needed 10 and a half hours of daily dialysis.

Harskamp and Stansel had met nearly five years ago when the tables were turned, and Stansel was the one offering a helping hand. On Dec. 11, 2012, Harskamp’s house burned down. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the incident left her family temporarily displaced. Alaska flight attendants of AFA–CWA Council 30 quickly responded, creating a social media page asking fellow employees to provide meals for Harskamp, her husband, and two children until they could get resettled. Stansel was one of the first to deliver.

“Jenny showed up with lasagna and some wine,” says Harskamp. “That just speaks to her personality. If somebody needs something, she’s going to help.”

About a year ago, Stansel became ill during a flight. She discovered that her kidneys were functioning at 6 percent of their capacity. Knowing that she would need a kidney transplant, Stansel distributed flyers and sent a companywide e-mail to see if any of her fellow employees could help.

“I had no idea Jenny was sick,” says Harskamp, who described the flight attendant as energetic and outgoing. “When I heard she needed a donor, I didn’t think twice about getting tested.”

Testing is an important first step in the transplantation process because the donor and recipient need to share several important physical characteristics. Fortuitously, Harskamp has the same blood type and proved to be a six-antigen match for Stansel. Matching antigens, or proteins the body produces, indicate that a donor’s kidney is more likely to be compatible. Their respective antibodies, which serve to protect against bacteria and viruses, also appeared to be well-suited. On paper, Harskamp was the perfect match.

Deciding whether to proceed with the surgery, Harskamp spoke with more than 40 donors, including six pilots, asking about their experiences and what she could expect. Most said they returned to work within eight to 12 weeks. After some soul searching and with the support of her family, Harskamp called Stansel to say she was on board with the surgery.

The three-hour transplant was performed on March 13 at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Wash. Both Harskamp’s and Stansel’s surgeries went as planned, and, once attached, the donor kidney immediately began acclimating. Within short order, both patients were walking around, and two days later the B-737 captain was able to leave the hospital.

Harskamp felt a little under the weather for several days. “I was thirsty all the time,” she recalls. “And sometimes I would get a metallic taste in my mouth, but that went away. After three or four weeks, I was doing well.”

Harskamp is expected to return to work July 1, and Stansel is recovering well, too. The new kidney has shown no signs of rejection.

Harskamp acknowledges that people continue to ask why she went through with the nonessential surgery. “Life is full of risks,” she remarks. “I knew I was a perfect match to be a kidney donor for Jenny. Imagine if in two years, Jenny passed away and I had never helped. The reward to me was far greater than the risk.”

Interested in Becoming a Living Donor?

Organ and tissue donation aren’t medically disqualifying for FAA certification, and you can register as an organ donor when applying for your driver’s license.

Contact ALPA’s Aeromedical Office at www.aviationmedicine.com for more information.

Transplant Documentary

To watch a BBC documentary about the Jodi Harskamp/Jenny Stansel kidney transplant, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSJzLdSfYHk&sns=em.

Recovery Costs

Alaska flight attendant Jenny Stansel continues to struggle with the costs associated with her life-saving kidney transplant. If you’d like to make a donation, visit www.gofundme.com/jennyandjodi.

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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