Wife gives husband the gift of life
It’s the ultimate gift – the gift of health.
For Gardnerville dance instructor Ann Peters, the opportunity to give one of her kidneys to her husband, Craig, was not only a gesture of generosity, but a gift she also received the day of the transplant operation exactly six weeks ago.
“(The kidney) started working as soon as they hooked it up and Craig started feeling better immediately,” Ann wrote in the couple’s 1998 Christmas letter.
“Well, not immediately,” she parenthesized. “But within 24 hours he was out of ICU and in his room with rosy cheeks for the first time in a year.”
Craig’s kidneys were doomed to fail since birth. He and his younger sister Jody inherited “polycystic kidney disease” from his mother, Thea Waddell, but none of them knew of their fate until Thea was diagnosed nearly 20 years ago. She eventually went on a time-consuming hemodialysis regime, and died six years ago.
“Her kidneys weighed 28 pounds each when she died,” Ann said. “Craig’s sister’s kidneys grew, too, but she had to have them removed and went on dialysis.”
“Normally, the kidney is about the size of a small fist, with the characteristic kidney bean shape,” Craig explained. “But with polycystic disease the kidney grows to compensate for the cyst areas, which become nonfunctional.”
“It’s a slow disease and typically it’s in the last stages – in the patient’s 50s or 60s – that they get to ‘end stage renal disease’ and have to go on dialysis, which is every other day for several hours at a time,” Craig said. “It takes over your life – it did my mother’s.”
n What the kidneys do The human body has two kidneys which function to basically filter the blood and move the filtrants out through the urine. If a kidney malfunctions, and doesn’t remove, say, the potassium, the heart can eventually stop – or if the phosphorous isn’t regulated and filtered, the bones can practically dissolve over time. The kidneys also regulate blood pressure and the body’s fluid balance, so high blood pressure and/or puffiness around the eyes, hands and feet can be signs of kidney-related problems.
Kidneys also generate the hormone which tells the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, so anemia can be another indication of kidney malfunction.
“The anemia really got to me,” Craig said. “I was tired a lot of the time. My skin was gray and my hair got real dull and brittle.”
Reaching a crucial point with his own failing kidneys, Craig explored his options and one year ago the couple attended a transplant evaluation gathering in Reno.
Ann had been offering to give Craig a kidney for years, but he was hesitant.
“I didn’t want to endanger her health,” he said. “Besides, she’d had cervical cancer 15 years ago, and I just assumed she wouldn’t be a candidate.”
As it turned out, the evaluation event was for both recipients as well as donors, and through some blood tests and conversations with experts, Ann became a potential donor and at least a blood and tissue match for Craig.
“It’s pretty rare and usual to have a ‘living unrelated’ compatible donor,” Craig said. “We were shocked.”
n Qualifying for donation. Getting a kidney transplant is no easy task. First, the patient must be completely evaluated, both physically and psychologically, to determine if they are a good candidate. In Craig’s case, the fact that the donation would come from his wife made him an excellent transplant candidate.
“The best success they have with transplants is with a husband and wife,” Craig said.
The largest percentage – 87 percent – of kidney transplant rejections occur because the recipient doesn’t take their medications, Craig explained.
“It’s tragic. But in a husband and wife situation, the donor makes sure the recipient takes their medication and the recipient is so grateful that they don’t want to do anything to make the donor feel like they wasted their organ,” he said. “Because there is a shortage of donors, doctors want to know that the patients with the most to gain as far as their health and ultimate benefit are the ones to get the kidneys. Any kind of history of drug abuse or alcoholism immediately eliminates them.”
n How to pay? Once the approval was in ink, the couple, both self-employed, had to make sure they had enough insurance to afford the operation both would need, the expensive medications and follow-up care that would last the rest of Craig’s life.
Craig’s business, Capco, is a one-man runway-cleaning operation, requiring him to travel to major airports in the west and remove the dangerous rubber skidmarks that planes make each time they land. His work entails travel away from the couple’s Genoa home much of the time.
Ann, 50, owns and operates the popular longtime Gardnerville business, Ann Peters’ Dance Studio.
From May to November, she looked for insurance to cover the transplant.
“Basically, you can’t get insurance with polycystic kidney disease,” Craig said.
Through some luck, however, Ann discovered that Medicare would cover 80 percent of “end stage renal disease,” so finally, after months of searching, they had the coverage and the surgery could go forward.
At the time, Craig, 54, was going into kidney failure. In good physical condition due to faithful exercise and a strict kidney-friendly diet, he was nonetheless a very sick guy. Without a ready and qualified donor, he would have gone on the transplant list and had to wait three to five years for (maybe) a kidney, most likely having to go to dialysis in the interim.
n Finally, the Surgery. When the day for surgery dawned, Ann was operated on using a new laparoscopic surgery that had only been done at California Pacific Medical Center once before. Ann, who has “danced her whole life,” was in good physical condition, which qualified for the laparoscopic surgery.
“The old kidney surgery involves cutting from the belly button around the waist to the small the back,” Craig said. “They have to remove a rib, and the recovery time is very long for that surgery compared to the laparoscopic technique.”
In the laparoscopic surgery, he explained, four holes are made in the donor’s abdomen around the vicinity of the kidney, and surgeons actually disconnect the organ internally, using small cameras and probing tools. A plastic bag is then inserted through a three-inch incision, and the separated kidney is placed inside the bag and brought out through the same incision.
Ann’s surgery took 6-1/2 hours, and her kidney was in Craig’s body within 20 minutes afterwards.
“My creatinine levels began to drop immediately,” Craig said, adding that by the time he was released from the hospital six days later, his levels were normal.
n Recovery begins. Daughter Adrea, 28, came from Boulder, Colo. to help the couple recover.
“She was at the hospital and home with us for a week after that, so we are grateful to have had here there,” Ann said. “I was also fortunate to have good people at the dance studio to cover for me and allow me the time off.”
To combat organ rejection and deal with other post-transplant needs, Craig started taking 50 pills a day and is now down to 34 a day, Ann explained.
“Many of the pills cause nausea, and fortunately Craig doesn’t seem to have a problem with this,” Ann said. “The nausea is why some people stop taking their pills.”
Currently, the pills cost $2,000 month, but will hopefully drop to less than $1,000 when they have to take over the full costs in three years.
It will take approximately one year for Ann’s remaining kidney to grow and handle the extra load her donated kidney used to process. Since receiving his wife’s kidney, Craig said he has begun to experience something she always complained about – heartburn.
“Ann used to talk about having heartburn and I’d never had it before,” Craig said. “Really, it’s probably due to one or more of the medications, but I’ve been teasing her that is came from her kidney.”
n Donor shortages. Organ donations rose during the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s and then began to drop steadily, Craig said. The reason?
“The only things they can come up with that could be a factor in the decline are the helmet laws and seat belt laws,” he said. “Usually the most successful organ donations come from a head injury.”
“I wish more people would think about becoming donors,” Ann said. “It wasn’t that tough and makes such a difference in someone’s life.”
The Peters’ have been together for 15 years, married for five, and both say that while this experience couldn’t have made them closer since they have always been so inclined, they do have a glow between them that is obvious.
“We’re pretty lucky to have met each other,” Ann said. “We are both still in the sci-fi stage of this right now. We’ll lay in bed and I’ll say, ‘I can’t believe my kidney is in you, or Craig will say something along that line. It’s so amazing to us.”
“It is so unbelievable that we were actually a match. I want Ann to get all the credit,” he said. “For me, the experience has made me much more aware of the good part of life. This would have changed my life completely if I’d ever had to go to dialysis, because my work involves travel, and dialysis must be done every other day -I probably would have had to give up my business. It has made me slow down, and, as my mom used to say, ‘smell the flowers.”
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