by Sheila Gardner

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June 22, 2012
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Kidney swap brings new meaning to life

It's been one month since Minden resident Dave Brady donated a kidney to friend Toby Cooling.

That same day, Cooling's wife Diane, thwarted in her attempt to be her husband's donor, gave her kidney to a woman she had never met.

Completing the picture, Brady's friend Reagan Eilers also received a new kidney from a California stranger, in a process known as "kidney paired donation" that involved as much synchronicity as surgical skill.

The lengthy procedure took place May 18 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Eilers' 57th birthday.

The Bradys, Eilerses and Coolings met Thursday to compare notes and talk about how their lives have changed for the better since Brady's original offer to provide a kidney for his sick friend Reagan.

"It started with a simple conversation with Reagan about the paired program," Brady said. "I said, 'let's do it.'"

Kidney paired donation is an option for living donor pairs who are not compatible with each other. Previously, people with kidney failure who had an incompatible donor needed to wait for a deceased donor, according to the medical center.

With paired donation, kidneys can be "exchanged" between pairs, making multiple compatible living donor transplants possible.

It took eight participants including two California couples to make the process work.

"It was like choreographing a dance," Brady said. "Weeks before the surgery, I really started watching myself - looking both ways before crossing the street, being cautious. I didn't want to be responsible for calling this off."

Brady's kidney was about 90 percent compatible with Eilers, but surgeons preferred a closer match.

Unbeknownst to Brady, his kidney was a perfect match for Cooling whom he'd known for 20 years.

"Part of our getting together is to talk about this and create an opportunity to challenge others to be donors," Brady said.

Before the operation, details of who was getting what from whom were kept confidential. After the surgery - if everyone agreed - they were allowed to meet each other.

The "reveal" was reported by San Francisco and Reno media in early June. That's when the three couples realized the strength of their Carson Valley-Carson City connection.

Back home, the recipients are enjoying life as never before.

The Eilers' daughter is getting married in August.

"We didn't even know if Reagan would be able to walk her down the aisle," said his wife, Martha, 54. "Now they're practicing their father-daughter dance."

Martha Eilers said she could see improvement in her husband from the moment he woke up from the surgery.

Cooling, 67, has suffered with kidney problems for nearly a decade.

"I felt fortunate to get Dave's kidney. He's a very healthy guy," Cooling said.

The retired police officer and part-time Douglas County constable said he was always tired prior to the surgery.

"I would go to dialysis three times a week, and they'd take out 11 pounds of fluid each time. That was 33 pounds a week, and it would come right back," Cooling said.

He now weighs 175-180 pounds, from a high of 250 pounds.

"At my peak, I looked like the Michelin tire man," he said.

Eilers had the opposite problem and was unable to keep weight on. He was diagnosed three years ago with an autoimmune disease that attacked his kidneys.

He agreed dialysis was the most difficult part.

"Mentally, dialysis was the toughest part. It was like having an anchor around your neck," Eilers said.

Brady's wife, Mary, 53, said she was 100 percent behind her husband's decision, but grew anxious as the day for the surgery approached.

"I kind of had this fear in the back of my mind," she said.

They had conversations about possible complications which never materialized.

"I think it was the right thing to do," said Brady, 56. "I'm thrilled I've been able to make a difference. It gave me a sense of purpose."

Part of the reward, too, for donors Brady and Diane Cooling was to watch Toby Cooling and Eilers regain their health.

"I had watched a man age 20 years in two years," Brady said of Eilers whom he has known for more than 25 years.

Donors and recipients had nothing but praise for the staff and the medical center.

"I would have done anything to have this done," Eilers said.

Brady and Diane Cooling, 53, were out of the hospital within a couple days of their surgeries.

The recipients were hospitalized a few days longer, and sent home with a new medical regimen.

"The only change I would make is that I wish I'd had it done sooner," Cooling said. "You can't buy this. With Dave and Diane saying 'yes' to the donation, that's priceless."

They still are at a loss for words to explain their gratitude and their second chance thanks to the medical miracle.

"You can't really explain how you feel. You can't believe somebody's going to actually do this. I didn't ask him, he volunteered," Eilers said of Brady.

Cooling, who is quick with quips and one-liners, struggled when asked to share his feelings.

"It's a miracle. I don't know how else to say it. The wave that goes over your body when you survive something. I didn't die, and I was facing that. I was only going to get worse," Cooling said.

Eilers agreed.

"It's a miracle. I am excited and happy. People like Dave and Diane were willing to do that," he said. "I used to take my health for granted. I don't do that any more. It's great to wake up in the morning and think, 'It's going to be a beautiful day.'"

"I am honored I got to be part of it. I am excited to get out the word. It's easy for healthy people to do it. 'Share your spare,'" Diane Cooling said, quoting a National Kidney Foundation motto.

Brady and Diane aren't worried if something should happen to their kidneys.

"We go to the top of the transplant list," Brady said.


California Pacific Medical Center

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Diane Cooling's kidney was transplanted into Christina Abeyta, of Newman, Calif.

Monterey Morrisey's kidney was transplanted into Reagan Eilers of Carson City.

Gilbert Abeyta's kidney was transplanted into Bonnie Morrissey of Oakmont, Calif.

Dave Brady's kidney was transplanted into Toby Cooling of Gardnerville.

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The Record Courier Updated Jun 25, 2012 11:35AM Published Jun 22, 2012 06:18PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.