New year, new kidney, new life
By Bonnie Kay Baldwin
Lake Mills Graphic
May 11, 2017 was the beginning of a long journey for a rural Lake Mills man.
Battling an upper respiratory illness for weeks, farmer Lee Halvorson, awoke having difficulty breathing.
“I was extremely uncomfortable and felt like an elephant was standing on my chest,” said Lee.
He and his wife, Dana, decided to have their son, Brett, take Lee to the clinic, which would just be opening that morning, to get checked out. Dana and their two daughters would follow in another car, if it was warranted.
“When I arrived, my blood pressure was very high, and initial lab results showed a creatinine level of 5.1, which is extremely elevated. Normal reference range is about 0.8-1.3, and we were told that I would need to be transported by ambulance to a larger hospital with more capabilities, and that I was in acute renal failure,” said Lee. “I had no diagnosed history of high blood pressure or diabetes, which are considered the two most common causes of kidney failure.”
Being that this was happening at one of a farmer’s busiest times of year, Lee was only able to give advice from a hospital bed the next six days.
“Quite a few people have asked me how we were able to make all of this work with the farm. Our son, Brett, and his high school friend, Logan McCormick, were fortunately able to handle any of the jobs required, as they have been ‘learning on the job’ for several years now,” said Dana. “Brett is currently finishing his ag engineering degree at Iowa State University, and fortunately, has been able to help whenever he is not in school. However, we needed someone who could be here and potentially take over with only a few hours notice if necessary, in the event Lee would get called to Rochester, if a deceased donor kidney became available. Logan had just finished his welding trade school program after high school when all of this happened, and he was willing to work for us full-time, so that he could step in if needed, and also handle our custom snow removal eventually, when Lee went in for his transplant in November. This was a huge responsibility, but Logan was ready, willing, and able, and we could not have managed all that we do with the farm, without Brett and Logan.”
Knowing that a kidney transplant was inevitable, Lee had to adhere to a strict dietary regimen, He also had to visit his nephrologist at Mayo Hospital, Rochester, Minn., every two months.
In August 2017, Lee had to have a three-day workup to see if he was eligible to be a transplant recipient. It was then that he was told he could be a candidate.
From then on, Lee was required to stay within a three-hour drive of Rochester in case a deceased donor kidney became available. To keep his strongest kidney functioning (at 15 percent), he required that a stent be put in, which would have to be replaced every two-to-three months until the transplant.
“At this point, my (three) sisters began discussing the possibilities of one of them being able to donate,” said Lee.
“I do not remember life without my ‘little’ brother who definitely outgrew me long ago . . . ” said sister, Lonna Nielsen. “Our relationship, like all siblings, has had its ups and downs, but if one or the other of us were in a tough spot, or needed help or support, we would always be there for one another. We had been raised to be supportive and loving, not only to one another, but to those around us.”
As soon as the sisters found out in June 2017, that Lee’s kidneys would not recover and that he needed a transplant, all three (Linda, Lori and Lonna) took ‘step one’ to be a donor, which was an online survey.
“This was not a ‘have to’, but a ‘can I’ be a match,” Lonna said. Unfortunately, Linda and Lori were ruled out right away, due to health issues of their own. Luckily, Lonna passed the evaluation. This required her to do some laboratory workup locally, and then in January 2018, she travelled to Mayo for three days of intensive physical and mental testing.
“Looking back on the process now, I realize that, not only did they need to make certain I was physically going to be able to live the life I have always wanted to live with one kidney, but also make certain that I was mentally prepared for any ‘what ifs’ that can come with a major procedure such as this.”
It was in February 2018, that Lonna not only was able to tell Lee (and the rest of the family) that she could be a donor, but was a ‘perfect match’.
“Deep inside my inner-most being, I told myself that if I was a perfect match for my brother, that this was a part of God’s plan and He had been preparing me for this for many years. Now, that may seem like a strange statement, but being raised in the Christian home that we were, daily we saw that giving of oneself is something we do, because of all the blessings bestowed upon us. God had provided me with a mental and physical health that would make this process an option. God had given me a background in veterinary medicine, so the process was more understandable. God made my blood a ‘perfect match’ to my baby brother,” Lonna explained. She further described what a perfect match means:
“Our blood has six other subcategories that are taken into consideration. They do transplants when those subcategories do not match up perfectly, but when they do match up, it reduces the amount and numbers of anti-rejection medications that the recipient is required to take. Lee’s immune system will be less likely to reject my kidney, because we match in all those subcategories. We were told that the longest kidney transplant recipient has survived 52 years and that was a sibling ‘perfect match’ as well. Only an identical twin match could have been more perfect than ours. I would say that is God designed.”
When Lee heard that Lonna could be the donor, he said, “Words that came to my mind when asked how I felt at that time are: relieved, blessed, humbled, and very thankful.”
After it was decided that Lonna would be the donor, they needed to decide when the best time would be for them to have the transplant. It worked out in both their schedules to wait until after the harvest; sometime around Thanksgiving. The date was set for Nov. 21, 2018.
On Nov. 20, Lee and Lonna had to go through last-minute rechecks on labs and other appointments for two separate transplant teams. They determined that there were no major changes in health, whether physical or mental, that would delay or cancel the surgery. Surgery was set for Wednesday morning, Nov. 21.
“Our families all gathered to await the outcome of both procedures,” said Lonna. “I was in recovery by the time they had begun Lee’s surgery and so when the 16 family members got word that my kidney was pumping blood through it within Lee’s body, there were many sighs of relief.”
“The surgery was very successful and both of us have recovered nicely, for which we are so grateful,” said Lee. Lonna said Lee noted a change the day after surgery in his body. Lonna was completely off Tylenol by the second week, but one of the outcomes is that she can never take any form of ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or naproxen sodium (Aleve), due to it’s connection with kidney failure. She is back to eating normal meals and walking daily. Advice given to her, was to ‘stay skinny’, because of health issues that come with weight gain. As for Lee, he will be on anti-rejection medications for the rest of his life, and for the next six months, he has to be very careful not to be exposed to bacterial, fungal, and viral organisms, because of his lowered immune system, due to the anti-rejection meds.
Although things have gone about as good as they could have, transplants like this usually mean six months, to at least a year, of disability. It is a process that can mean a person’s career or job can be put on hold; meaning a loss in income or even a job. A great deal of planning goes into this process, including being ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice.
Through it all, they both learned a great deal. “Looking back on this experience, it has reminded me that it’s always a good idea to keep track of your blood pressure, vital signs, and routine lab results, regularly. Things can still happen even if you think you are pretty healthy, but it’s best to err on the side of caution with a quick visit to your medical practitioner. We never dreamed at that first trip back in May 2017, that the end result would be vital organ damage requiring a transplant from my sister. God answered many prayers from many people throughout this experience,” shared Lee.
For Lonna, she said, “The entire process was amazing. At Mayo they do over 600 transplants per year between their three locations. The first transplant was done in 1963. Over the last 50-plus years, the procedure and the post-surgery management has been perfected. This is a routine surgery even though it is a major procedure . . . I stayed one night in the hospital and then spent two additional nights in Rochester, making certain I had no complications. Lee left the hospital on Saturday and then stayed in a
Serenity House in Rochester for two additional weeks, while they regulated his medications.”
Finally she said, “If you know of someone in need of a kidney and are wondering if you could be a match, DO NOT hesitate to be checked out, because you can live a normal life with just one kidney. The oldest living donor they have had is 73. Consider being an organ donor after your death, as well. They are now doing lung, heart, and liver transplants, as well as the kidney transplants. Change someone’s stars and be an organ donor now, or later.”