Rebuilding Me Somewhere Else

by Peter Keller

[This story was written towards an audience that is considering the option of donating one of their kidneys to someone in need]

My Dad needed a new kidney. He has IgA nephropathy (Berger's Disease), a kidney disorder caused by deposits of protein inside the filters within the kidneys. This is a chronic kidney disease that progresses over a 10 to 20 year period. Our family knew for the last decade that he would need a new kidney or have to go on dialysis sometime in the future. That time of reckoning came in the winter of 1998. My brother and two sisters elected to go through the first stage of evaluation - blood typing and antigen matching. Two of my siblings didn't match the same blood type as my Dad, but my younger sister and I did. So, it came down to one of us.

I didn't think I was eligible because a year earlier I had my spleen removed after a losing bout with Epstein-Barr virus and an accompanied viral hepatitis. (That's a story in itself). I thought I had it easy, I didn't even have to make a decision. But, just to be sure (at the time I was hesitant about a donation and was looking for an excuse) I checked with my Doctor. He gave me the answer I wasn't looking for - "sure you can donate a kidney, I see no reason why you couldn't." Now I had to face this crucial decision on the merits.

I lead a very active life filled with hiking, surfing, mountain climbing, tennis, and anything else in the outdoor recreation category. During the recovery from the spleenectomy I realized how much my life centered on recreation. I was afraid a kidney donation could jeopardize my life style. So, I did a lot of research and talked to many Doctors and friends who have had experience in kidney donations. When you start to ask these types of questions it's amazing to find out how my people have only one kidney (due to various reasons) and each was doing quite well.

People react in many different ways when you tell them about the decision you are trying to make. One friend who was present for my spleenectomy asked if they were rebuilding me somewhere else. Good humor always helps. My younger sister and I had to decide who would be the one to go through the second stage of testing. We decided I would go a head with the testing for a donation (although I was secretly hoping I would be ineligible). I had read many WebPages regarding personal stories of donating a kidney. I was surprised by how many people said they had no reservations. Well, I did and was not about to admit my selfishness.

However, as the testing went along and I cleared the blood type and antigen match, plus the chest x-ray and IVP, I started to get excited about the possibility of donating my kidney to my Dad. Then came the final test of the MRI/Arteriogram and I actually began to worry that my kidney might be rejected. Luckily my kidney met all the requirements and finally a surgery date was scheduled for June 12th back in Minnesota at the Hennepin County Medical Center. (I live in northern California and had been going through these tests in local medical facilities).

While scanning the webpage stories I read a few that described large incisions and broken ribs, plus up to six weeks of recovery. But, I also discovered from talking to my transplant coordinator that the living related kidney donation surgery has improved in just the last few months. The medical center recently began using the laparoscopic nephrectomy technique, whereby four small half inch incisions are made on the left flank of the abdomen to place various instruments while the kidney (and plumbing: vessel, vain, and ureter) is slipped into a plastic bag and pulled out a two inch cut below the belly button. The benefits are reduced time in the hospital and shorter recovery periods. The tests indicated I was a perfect candidate for this procedure. Now, only the surgery lay ahead.

It seemed like an eternity waiting several weeks for the operation, but once the day arrived everything went into hyper-speed. We arrived at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. to check into admissions. They sent both my Dad and I into separate dressing rooms to put on the patient garb - tight leggings, pants, gown, and socks. After that our vitals were taken and we were given a shot of heparin in the abdomen to prevent blood clotting. We were sent back to the waiting room for the call to surgery. I was sitting only a few minutes when a nurse called out my name. My pulse shot up; this is it - time for the big show. I hugged the crew goodbye and followed the nurse up to the operating suite. It's a strange thing to walk into the operating suite - sort of unnatural, maybe because you don't walk out.

The pre-op room was lined with beds and dozens of scurrying medical personnel. It was like an assembly line; I choose a bed and the waves of crew's came by. First the greeter, then the IV team, then the surgery assistants to brief me, then the anesthesiologist to prepare me for the big sleep. Then all of a sudden I was wheeled into the operating room itself and scooted over to the operating table. I was strapped down and hooked up with a few heart monitors and other contraptions. And then the mask came over my face, the attendant said "breath deep, breath deeper, okay that's good, breath" and the lights went out.

I awoke in a deep haze in the post-op room. My body was shaking tremendously, yet I had blankets all over me. My view across the room was very blurry, yet I could make out a figure here and there trying to tell me where I was and what happened - which was good because I didn't know. After I was stable they wheeled me out past the waiting room where my family came by to see how I was. I really can't remember seeing anybody, it was like I was inside a box, but I can remember hearing their voices. The next time I awoke I was in my hospital room getting a shot of Demerol in my arm. My family was there talking to me telling me I looked great - I sure didn't feel that way. At 7 p.m. the nurses had me get out of bed and sit in a chair. It took all my energy to avoid the nausea feeling from taking control of me.

The next day was worse. My throbbing internal organs, bloated abdomen, aching back, and bruised lower rib combined for a constant gnawing pain that no new position in the bed or drug could alleviate. I just suffered through the night knowing that each day gets better. And it does. On Sunday, my second full day after the surgery I was up walking, took a shower, and was well enough to be discharged by 4 p.m. The following three days at home I had the constant pain as before, but each day was more tolerable. The first three days at home I took the painkiller Vicodin twice a day, and that helped somewhat. Then finally on Thursday I awoke feeling somewhat like a normal person - the constant pain was gone and the discomfort would only appear every few hours. I knew then I was on the road to better times.

Exactly two weeks after I underwent the laparoscopic nephrectomy I went back to work. The time in the hospital was only 2.5 days. It's amazing how quickly the recovery had gone. However, it was not without pain. The first five days were the worst. However, in retrospect (now that my brain doesn't register the pain) it really was a short period to suffer when considering the benefits. Mostly when I hear from my Dad and he tells me how well he is doing - his new kidney started working right away and his condition gets better each day.

As the days went by and I saw the excitement in my Dad's eyes for his new lease on life, I began to ask myself why I had a hard time making the decision to donate a kidney - from this side of the operating table it's a no brainer. Now I know what others mean when they say it is an honor to help a loved one in this way.