Fair Trade: Kidney Donor Swap Strengthens Family Ties

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By Lisa Ballantine and Sebrenia Johnson

This is a shared story of a kidney donor and recipient told through the eyes of both participants who are related through the marriage of their children but were brought closer together because of a paired kidney exchange.  

Lisa

When I first met Sebrenia, I was impressed with this kind, godly yet fierce woman who was to be my son’s mother-in-law. I saw her ability for compassion and kindness toward others. We connected immediately, and she has since become a dear friend. In fact, we call each other sister-mom since there is no term for our relationship, and as we share our children now, and love each other as sisters, this seems fitting.

As I got to know Sebrenia, I learned that this amazing woman was being hindered by her lack of a functioning kidney.

Sebrenia

To manage my kidney disease for the past 13 years, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for three hours and 15 minutes I needed dialysis treatment. I also had to incorporate a renal diet into my lifestyle, which included many food restrictions. As a dialysis patient I had to adhere to no potatoes, cheese, milk, chocolate, dark-green leafy vegetables, beans, cornbread, bananas, tomatoes, orange juice, colas, ice cream, peanuts or products with nuts.

These foods are high in potassium and phosphorus and could be detrimental to the heart and bones of a person with limited or no renal function.

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Tim’s Story: When Dad Becomes Donor

tim-guimon-kidney-transplantAfter falling ill and urinating blood at age 16, Tim Guimon was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy — a kidney disease that causes inflammation and interferes with the kidney’s ability to filter waste from blood. He also learned that he was born with one kidney smaller than the other, and that these conditions could cause issues throughout his life.

“At that time, though, I didn’t have any major symptoms,” Tim says. “My doctor said I was doing fine, but warned me that it would probably progress as I got older. So for about 10 years, I kind of neglected to think about my kidneys.”

But when he was 26 years old, Tim’s wife, Kerstin, noticed that his legs were unusually swollen. Though he initially didn’t think it was a big deal, Kerstin and his mom, Sandy, encouraged him to see a doctor to determine if the swelling was related to his kidneys.

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Gift of Life: An Organ Donor’s Story

In addition to overseeing Rush’s abdominal transplant program, Rachel Thomas has experienced the transformative effect of transplant firsthand.

Nearly seven years ago, Thomas — who is service line and program administrator, solid organ transplant, hepatology and nephrology — donated one of her own kidneys to be transplanted into her husband at the time, who previously had spent 13 years on dialysis due to focal segmental glomerulosclersosi (FSGS).

“We had a baby, and I knew the quality of life for my entire family would improve,” says Thomas, MBA, BSN, RN, CNN. “We’d been working our life around being at a dialysis center three days a week.”

Thomas underwent a minimally invasive laparoscopic procedure to donate her kidney, spent less than a day in the hospital and went back to work eight days later. She also had a second child after making her donation, and the entire family has remained in good health since, and although he and Thomas eventually divorced, she’s glad she could provide him with his life-changing gift.

“I’m grateful that my kids’ lives aren’t built around seeing their dad’s illness,” she says.

Not surprisingly, Thomas is a strong advocate for organ donation, especially for kidney donation by living donors. “Donations by living donors always have better outcomes and better survival rates than donations from deceased donors. Living donors also have an emotional investment in the other person, which enhances quality of life and survival,” Thomas says. “If my husband had received a deceased donor kidney, that would have been one less kidney out there for someone else, so I’ve kind of saved two lives,” she adds.

Thomas encourages people to register to be organ donors, which can be done online at Donate Life Illinois.