By Jan Rahn
April was designated by Gov. Dave Heineman as “Donate Life Month,”—however, the gift of life should actually be recognized throughout the entire year as a national observance that helps increase awareness of the potential for saving lives through organ, cornea and tissue donations.
As of May 5, there were 110,919 people on the national waiting list for lifesaving transplants. An additional one million Americans who suffer from blindness, medical conditions and devastating injuries could be treated with donated corneas or tissue.
Transplants done nationally in January of this year numbered 2,406 from 1,195 donors.
There are nearly 88,500 people in the U.S. currently awaiting a kidney transplant. Hopeful liver recipients number 16,137; heart 3,134; lung 1,771; and pancreas 1,361.
Kim Copple of Elsie knows all too well what it feels like to be on that list—waiting and wondering if and when her life will change.
Copple was one of the lucky recipients of a kidney five years ago. She had reason to celebrate Donate Life Month in April.
Receiving the Gift
The Elsie woman has run the gamut with emotions when it comes to kidney transplants. She is a fortunate recipient of a kidney—a transplant that saved her life. However, she said the absolute worst experience was finding out her daughters have the disease that was discovered in her.
Fear struck her heart in 2000 when she was having trouble with high blood pressure—knowing in the back of her mind that by the symptoms it could be Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), a disease prevalent on her mother’s side of the family which took her mother’s life in 1993.
“So, after a few tests, sure enough, there it was in black and white—PKD,” said Kim. “I was in denial for some time after the diagnosis because I was tested at age seven and was negative.”
She learned later that the disease may not appear until the age of 30.
Kim said she visited with a nephrologist who gave her the
ultimatum—choose the type of dialysis she wanted and then begin testing for the kidney transplant list.
“It took me some time to come to terms with his advice,” said Kim, “but I guess what forced me into making the decision was my health. I felt just terrible, no energy at all, very anemic and from some accounts, didn’t look so great either!”
By 2006, she was in renal failure and chose to do a stay-at-home procedure called peritoneal dialysis, where a catheter is implanted in the abdomen and a solution cleans the blood by osmosis through the peritoneum, the membrane lining the walls of the abdominal cavity.
This procedure was done once a day and through the night each day for four years, said Kim.
Her name was put on the transplant list following testing, and she was told there was between a two- to seven-year wait for a cadaver kidney.
“Every year that I waited, the list of people waiting for a kidney transplant at the University of Colorado grew larger and larger,” she said. “When I first was placed on the transplant list I was number 267 waiting for a kidney at that hospital, and over the four years for those waiting it more than doubled.
Receipt of New Kidney
Fast forward to December 2009.
She said it was around midnight that cold December night when the phone rang—it was the transplant nurse asking all kinds of health questions.
The nurse told Kim they had a kidney but that she was third on the list. The nurse said she would be calling back in the next couple hours to let Kim know her status.
“At about 5 a.m. she called back and told me the kidney went to someone else,” said Kim. “I think it was a good thing because it prepared me for the future. I had been waiting so long but didn’t really prepare myself mentally.”
On March 29, 2010 at 8:30 a.m. she received a call from her daughter, Holly, who was in class at the University of Nebraska, wondering where her mother was because the transplant team at the University of Colorado was trying to find her. Kim had stepped out for a few minutes and missed the call.
When she contacted the coordinator for transplant, she was told to get to Denver as soon as possible.
Kim was told the kidney would be hers because the person first on the list was too far away to make it in time.
“It didn’t take long to get ready to go since my bag had been packed for four years!’ she said.
Her husband Chris drove her to Denver in record time and the kidney arrived about the same time that they did.
“Several hours later I was in surgery and the wait was finally over,” she said.
Kim had to remain in Denver the first month so that the kidney and the medication could be monitored.
Because of the time of year, her farmer husband needed to return home, so her twin Caron Schultz, who had had a kidney transplant a year-and-a-half earlier came to take care of her.
“She was a great source of information and compassion,” said Kim. “And a great cook too.”
Kim said it took a few months after the transplant to build up her strength, but as of today she couldn’t feel better.
“Every day is a gift from God, and I do stop to smell the roses,” she said. “Life is great. Luckily I haven’t had any bouts with rejection and hope everything continues well.”
A donor kidney can last from 10-20 years, with the body trying to reject the new kidney every day. The medications used to prevent rejection can also harm the donor kidney, said Kim.
She is positive about the strides in development of new medications.
“I’m hoping the next kidney I receive, if need be, will be one that is grown from my own cells and there will be no need to depend on someone else,” she said. “This is just in the experimental phase and many years from fruition, but wouldn’t that be wonderful? There are hundreds of thousands of people waiting for some kind of transplant and if this new technology was used, what an incredible thing that would be.”
Kim said her family’s life has been affected by PKD since the early 1960s—her mother (Mona Lee Cutler), her aunt and sister were diagnosed with the disease.
The disease affects the kidneys by taking them over with cysts, eventually causing the kidney to quit functioning.
If high blood pressure is controlled, the process can be slow in most people, but by the age of 40 or 50, dialysis and transplant are needed.
Kim’s aunt was the first to receive a kidney in the late 1980s but she died from infection days after the operation.
Kim’s mother had two transplants—the first was rejected ,and then she lived about a year after the second, but died in 1993 from heart failure, which was most likely from the medications she was on to prevent rejection.
Even with the great strides made in drugs, there is a delicate balance.
Kim’s sister received a kidney from her husband about two years ago and is doing very well, she said. Two of her cousins have PKD, one just received a kidney from his daughter. The other is in the process of testing for the transplant list.
Weighing heavily on Kim’s heart is the fact her two daughters have tested positive for the disease.
“I just pray for a cure,” she said.
Kim takes three medications twice a day at exactly 12 hour intervals to keep her from rejecting the kidney. She wears an alarm so that she doesn’t miss a dose.
Although she considers her life fairly normal, she takes precautions—such as in handling raw meat, seafood and vegetables.
She is told not to eat at buffets because of the unknown amount of time the food has sat out. She must eat thoroughly cooked food and doesn’t eat leftovers over two days old. She wears a mask if around a waiting room of sick people, she sees a nephrologist every three months, and must wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer from the anti-rejection medicines.
Kim has lots of support from family, including her husband Chris who farms and is an agent for a seed company in the Elsie area.
She keeps the books for their farm and seed business. Cheering on the Huskers is a favorite pastime for Kim, along with gardening.
The Copples have three daughters. Jessie Paintin is married to Chase. They have a two-year-old son, Tanner, who Kim loves spending time with. The couple lives in Elsie where Chase has a construction business.
Daughter Jenny is just finishing her education at Des Moines University where she is studying to become a physical therapist. She will be married in June to Braden Schall and they will make their home in Burlington, Colo.
Youngest daughter Holly is a student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln majoring in dietetics.
As a UNL graduate herself, Kim said her youngest would like to someday work as a dietician in a dialysis center. Kim says her daughter saw first hand how diet affects a dialysis patient and how strictly it is monitored.
“My family has been so helpful and understanding through these last five years,” said Kim. “I am truly blessed with a wonderful family, friends, community and medical staff.
Their children and grandson add joy and blessings to her life—a life that was saved by a kidney transplant.
“Unfortunately, someone passed away for me to get healthy again, but I’m so thankful that the person chose to mark their driver’s license as a donor,” said Kim.
When there is a living donor, because of advancements and how the kidney is removed, recovery time is much less than it used to be.
Also, a living donor kidney has a better chance of surviving longer than a cadaver kidney.
“And you only need one kidney to live a healthy life!” she said.
Statistics in Nebraska
There are more than 450 Nebraskans currently waiting for a potentially lifesaving transplant. During 2010 there were 303 Nebraskans who received lifesaving organ transplants.
Nebraskans who have designated themselves as organ donors on their driver’s licenses numbered 656,875 in 2010. This number includes more than 23,000 new registrations for the year.
The county with the highest rate of registered donors is Arthur County, whose residents have the distinction of being at 60 percent.
Perkins County and Keith County are among 13 counties in the state ranking above 50 percent.
Sixty-nine other counties in the state have donor designation rates of at least 40 percent.
The Nebraska Kidney Association has been serving Nebraskans for over 41 years, and 100 percent of all money raised here stays here for programs and services to help residents of the state. The mission of the association is to improve the lives of all Nebraskans through advocacy, education, early disease detection and patient services.
To learn more about organ donation visit www.DonateLifeNebraska.com
Drivers can also make this directive when applying for or renewing a Nebraska driver’s license or state ID card.