Lyle Helmick, a shipbuilder since 1988, recently donated a kidney to a stranger. Photo by Ashley Cowan

The Gift of Life

Published June 14, 2022

Five years ago, Lyle Helmick (E84) underwent surgery for a brain tumor. After a difficult recovery, he regained his health and wanted to pay it forward.

“My life was extended because of that surgery,” he said. “So I really wanted to do that for someone else if I could.”

A longtime blood donor, Helmick – who has worked at Newport News Shipbuilding for 34 years – had considered the possibility of donating one of his kidneys to extend someone else’s life. But an article he read a couple of years ago in Currents about fellow shipbuilders brought it to the forefront. Kidney disease had left Louis Thomas in need of a transplant. Scott Cash, his friend and supervisor at the time, stepped forward and donated a kidney.

Their story inspired Helmick to learn more. The need is staggering. According to Donate Life America, more than 90,000 people in the United States are waiting for a life-saving kidney donation. Many spend several hours three days per week receiving life-sustaining dialysis treatments for years as they wait.

“The numbers are hard to fathom. The more I looked into it, the more I wanted to do it,” he said. About a year ago, Helmick reached out to the Sentara Transplant Center about a nondirected kidney donation. This means the kidney is donated as a gift with no expectations of return and no connections between the donor and transplant recipient. The recipient is determined by medical compatibility and need.

After meeting with a surgeon, a nephrologist – or kidney doctor – and a donor advocate, the next step was extensive testing to ensure Helmick was healthy enough.

“It’s quite a long process. I’ve never had a physical like this in my life,” he said. Helmick said his wife and daughter – both shipbuilders at NNS – were supportive of his decision.

There was a minor setback in January when Helmick contracted COVID-19. That led to additional testing, but he eventually got the all clear and had surgery April 26. Surgery and recovery went well, and Helmick returned to work in just under two weeks.

“My donation went to a local man. They don’t share his identity until a year after the surgery so I don’t know anything about him,” he said. “But I do know he was doing well after surgery.”

If the recipient agrees, he and Helmick could meet in the future. As for his own health, Helmick doesn’t have any concerns. “I don’t expect it to have an effect on my lifestyle or the length of my life,” he said. “There are people who were born with one kidney who never knew and have done just fine.”

Helmick said he was happy to step up to help someone in need. He called the positive response from co-workers and friends “overwhelming.” “If it makes one person start thinking about it like I did a few years ago, that’s a good thing,” he said. “I really hope it makes people aware of the need.”

Helmick encouraged shipbuilders who have questions about the transplant process to contact him via email.