Five years on borrowed time.. and counting

5:24 PM, Sep 6, 2010   |    comments
Taking in a Twins game
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- Friday night my family took in our first Minnesota Twins game at Target Field.  At one point in the 6th inning my eight-year-old son said, with utter joy in his voice, "Dad, can you believe we're right here breathing the air in Twins Territory?!"

I'm very lucky and blessed to be breathing the air anywhere, actually.  Five years ago this week my wife, Lisa Ramirez, gave me her left kidney, enabling me to enjoy thousands of such happy observations from our little boy.

Lisa was the first to offer a kidney once it became clear a transplant would be required.  But the fine folks at Hennepin County Medical Center's transplant clinic assured her that wouldn't be necessary. After all, I have seven siblings. Surely one of them would be a better match.

During the next several months my six sisters and brother were all ruled out as suitable donors for one reason or another. The HCMC screeners agreed to take a look at Lisa.  And by that I mean, take a look at her kidney with a CT scan, test her blood and check her overall health.

She was deemed a match. And, on top of that, they decided she was in good enough shape to live with one kidney. The donor's health is always of paramount concern, which is one of the reasons some of the other potential donors were eliminated from consideration.

Born this way

Quite simply I was born with my plumbing hooked up wrong, but it wasn't discovered until I was 17.  I had surgery the next year to correct the root cause of the problem, but by then I had lost two-thirds of normal adult kidney function.

I lived just fine many years on that remaining one-third. But at some point, for some unknown reason, my native kidneys started to go down hill.  My nephrologist, Dr. Tom Slack, said the best they could do was try to slow the failure, treat the symptoms and monitor my declining kidney function.

He made it clear, however, that at some point I would need to go on dialysis or get a transplant.  The standard test for kidney function is creatinine level in the blood. Normal adult creatinine is between 0.7 and 1.3, with lower being better.

My creatinine had grown to 5.7 when I started the donor search in September of 2004. It was at 7.5 in July of 2005 when they told me I needed to go on dialysis in the near future if I couldn't line up a donor.  It was 8.4 on the morning of the transplant.

Along the way I had a big scare because one of the side effects of my kidneys shutting down was a condition called hyperparathyroidism. Essentially my body decided it needed to borrow calcium from my bones, leaving holes that looked -- at least on xrays and scans -- like bone cancer.

An oncologist at Abbott Northwestern assured me it wasn't cancer, but said he'd love to use my charts as a trick question for his medical students. After getting through that episode in the summer of 2004 the idea of going through a transplant wasn't quite as frightening.

The wait for a kidney from a deceased donor can be several years.  Thanks to Lisa's willingness to sacrifice a kidney, and endure the surgery and recovery, I was able to avoid dialysis altogether.  I went straight from kidney failure to getting a great, healthy, normal kidney.

September 6, 2005

The morning of the surgery the HCMC team did one final tissue test, to see if our protein markers, or antigens, were compatible.  The nurses said usually people who aren't related can hope to match two out of six of those markers.

The lab technicians determined I only had four different markers to match because I had two duplicates. Lisa, it turned out, had three of those four markers! That would be good for the long-term viability of the "graft" -- the clinical term for the organ I would be borrowing from my wife.

They used laparoscopic surgery to remove Lisa's kidney, and then put it in my abdomen with an old fashioned incision.  They left my native kidneys where they were, to avoid unnecessary expense and recovery time.

So, technically, I have three kidneys now and Lisa has one.  But the only two that work are the ones that started in Lisa's body.

A bunch of our far flung relatives wanted to come to town for the transplant, but Lisa knew we'd need help taking care of our son during recovery. So, being the organized one in our household, she put them all on a schedule.

Thanks to Lisa's planning, we had at least one loved one staying with us all the time, beginning a week before the surgery and stretching seven weeks afterwards. At times one relative would be arriving from the airport as another was leaving to return to Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, New Mexico, California or New York.

I don't know how much time I'll get on this visiting kidney. My co-worker, photojournalist Tom Cornell, has made it more than 16 years on his donated kidney. That has been a source of inspiration throughout this journey.

Every day of good health is another testament to the value of Lisa's gift, and the skills of the HCMC surgical team and the staff of the clinic that's handled my follow-up care.  I'm profoundly fortunate to have a job with a health care coverage, so I can afford to take the meds and get the follow-up tests I need.

Lisa sees the physical reminders of the transplant every time she gets dressed. The scars of her surgery are much more obvious than mine. She's also been forced to endure my mood swings and the bouts of insomnia that have often been the side effect of my anti-rejection meds.

Through it all she's never doubted for a second that she did the right thing.  And I've never doubted for a second that I'll never be able to thank her enough for extending my visitor's visa here on planet earth.

So yes, Eli, it's great to breathe the air in Twins Territory.  Or any territory for that matter.  Five years and counting.

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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