Keyaira Miller, right, is donating a kidney to her mom, Lena. The surgery is scheduled for Thursday in Iowa City.

WATERLOO — Keyaira Miller has watched her mom, Lena Phillips, struggle with kidney failure for decades without being able to do much more than offer a helping hand.

On Thursday, she’ll be offering much more than that.

Miller, one of this year’s 20 Under 40 recipients, will donate one of her kidneys to Phillips on Thursday at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

It will be Phillips’ third kidney transplant — and, both say, hopefully her last.

She received two others from deceased donors — the first in 1991 that lasted for eight years, and the second in 2002 that lasted until this year. The average transplant from a deceased donor lasts 10 years, but a living donor’s organ can last 18 years or more, Miller said.

“This time, I’m not nervous, because it’s coming from my daughter,” Phillips said, sitting in the living room of her east Waterloo home Monday. “I’m very happy that my daughter chose to give her kidney. That’s what you call love.”

Miller said she just wants to give back to the woman who has given so much to her.

“She’s a trooper, with her dialysis and other health issues,” Miller said. “She just rolls with the punches and never complains. She’s the sweetest lady I know, super selfless. This was a no-brainer for me.”

Miller was too young to even think about donating to her mother the last two times, she said. But when Phillips’ kidney began failing this month and she went back on dialysis, Miller went to get tested to see if she’d be a match.

“It was kind of a shot in the dark,” Miller said. “Just because it’s your mom, or a sibling, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a match.”

Doctors in Iowa City went to work making sure that Miller was physically and mentally ready to be an organ donor for her mother, and that she wasn’t likely to face kidney disease herself.

“Being African-American, and a woman, we already have a high chance of developing kidney disease and high blood pressure,” Miller said.

Fortunately, doctors cleared her and set a surgery date. Miller will be out of commission for about four to six weeks, while Phillips will need between six and eight weeks to recover.

Phillips said she’ll have plenty of help from her husband, Terry Phillips, as well as her grandson and Miller’s son Harlem, 6, while Miller’s husband, mother-in-law and others will help take care of her and Harlem.

Though initially hesitant to share her story, Miller’s aunt convinced her it would help others deciding to be organ donors themselves.

“A lot of people out there may be scared or uninformed, and I want to let them know it’s OK,” Miller said.

Ultimately, her mom is top of mind.

“I know people that have died on dialysis. That was the more potent thing — in hopes this will be her final (kidney),” Miller said. “She can continue being retired and living life and not have to worry about dialysis three times a week.”

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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