Donating a kidney: more than saving a life

When Linda Stoddard of Wellington saw an obituary in the paper for a man who had died “after a long struggle with kidney disease,” she was motivated to share her story.

The picture of health, looking much younger than her 63 years, Stoddard works at Colorado State University as an advisor to students planning on entering the medical professions. Jim, her husband of 20 years, is 72, a civil engineer, and less than a year ago retired from his position as a project manager at CSU.

Jim was still working when he went in for cataract surgery in January 2014. As part of the preliminary testing prior to surgery an echocardiogram indicated an irregular heartbeat which triggered some blood work. That’s when Jim learned that his creatine level was high, an indication of kidney disease. Up until that time, he had no physical symptoms with the exception of tiredness which the couple attributed to working full time and a busy lifestyle.

Dr. Nilesh Ahuja, a Fort Collins nephrologist, examined Jim and explained that sometimes kidney disease plateaus for a time. But the handwriting was on the wall, so Linda and Jim began attending dialysis classes, the beginning of a journey that would educate them beyond what they had ever imagined about kidney disease.

They were introduced to the four types of dialysis, some of which could take place at home, but none that were simple, and all that were so time-consuming that a normal lifestyle became impossible. Surgery was required to insert a belly catheter and by November Jim underwent the procedure, but not without problems. He developed peritonitis but recovered in time to start dialysis, which required four 45 minute to one hour sessions daily on a dialysis machine.

In addition to spending most of his waking hours hooked up to a machine, Jim began to have difficulty breathing, the result of perforations in his diaphragm which allowed four liters of fluid to build up, causing the breathing problems. “It seemed like everything that could go wrong did,” Linda said. “There was no time in the day left to do anything.”

Jim didn’t ask her to but she offered to begin testing to see if she had a kidney that would be compatible with Jim’s body. The process took between four and five months and included blood tests, a mammogram, pap smear, colonoscopy and chest X-ray. “It was the most extensive physical I’d ever had,” Linda said. It didn’t cost her a dime. University of Colorado Health provided her with a letter explaining that she was testing to become a donor and all fees were dropped.

Linda learned that those who do not have a loved one willing to donate a kidney wait an average of five years to receive one. Of the 6,000 people waiting for a kidney, only 600 will receive one in time to save their lives.

A match isn’t as difficult to come by as one might think. After a series of blood tests, the degree of antigen match determines what kind of anti-rejection medications will be needed by the recipient. Linda and Jim learned, in her words, that her kidney would be able to “play nice” with his system.

One of the hardest things about orchestrating a spouse-to-spouse match is the fact that both participants are down and out of commission at the same time. The Stoddards were fortunate in that their children and other relatives were on board to help out.

Surgery was scheduled for May 5. Linda went first and Jim was opened up an hour later. Her kidney was carefully removed and placed on Jim’s right side, close to the bladder and femoral artery. His own kidneys were left in place to eventually wither away. At the time of surgery, Jim’s kidney function had decreased to 12 percent.

On May 8, both Stoddards left the hospital in Denver with high hopes. A few days later, Jim was hospitalized again and it was feared that his body was rejecting his new kidney. That wasn’t the case. Instead he was suffering from acute tubular necrosis caused by tubulars in Linda’s kidney that were objecting to their new home — either because of a change in blood pressure or perhaps the cool water the kidney had been submerged in during the transfer process. The good news was that the kidney was not being rejected and that the tubulars can heal themselves with time. The downside was an extended recovery period for Jim when he’d imagined emerging from the surgery with renewed vigor.

Linda could have been back at work in two weeks but instead she stayed home for six weeks as Jim slowly regained is strength. Two daughters, a son, a sister and brother-in-law all pitched in to help the couple. “We were very fortunate,” Linda said.

She doesn’t see her donation to Jim as an act of altruism. “It gave us both our lives back,” she said. “Jim didn’t ask. I offered and he made sure that there would be no danger to me before he agreed.” At the time Linda said she was so busy dealing with Jim’s disease that she really had no time to dwell on her decision. He’s grateful for what she did and for the incredible gift of getting his health back.

These days the Stoddards are back to taking trips in their RV, walking the dog, fishing and boating, things they could not do when Jim was tied to a dialysis machine. He was weak for a time, but these days he’s back to doing household chores — taking care of the trash and washing dishes while Linda continues in her job until she’s eligible for Medicare. “I’m now considered high-risk, making insurance more expensive,” she explained. As a consequence, she’ll work a year longer than she’d planned, a small price to pay, she says, for her husband’s life.

Linda’s mission is to let people know that donating a kidney is not painful. It is not expensive because all medical fees are waived for donors and it is not injurious to health. She stresses the fact that donating a kidney affects way more than a single life. It brings happiness to the families of those affected that can include dozens of people. “Jim likes to say he married me for spare parts,” she says with a smile.

How did the Stoddards celebrate Jim’s new state of health? Linda just wanted to be able to go out for a quiet dinner at a nice restaurant and have Jim able to sit up at the table so they could enjoy the food and the moment. “We did that,” Linda says with a tear in her eye. “We went to Young’s in Fort Collins, one of our favorite places.”

Note: Next time you renew your driver’s license consider indicating your willingness to be an organ donor. Or register now online at DonateLifeColorado.org or call 1-888-256-4386. Simple and lifesaving.

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