A loving sister, a kidney transplant and a second chance
Posted on 27 June 2017
Jennifer Swanepoel, a mom to two young adults, had a packed work and social schedule when she was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease in July 2015.
‘My son was doing matric, my daughter was very involved at school, I was running my small business and 24 hours in the day just wasn’t enough!’ she says.
‘And then I found myself struggling more and more to get through each day. The fatigue and headaches were debilitating but I wrote it off as stress and a bad diet.’
Eventually the pain relief stopped working and Jennifer found herself in the emergency room early on a Saturday morning.
‘I felt nauseous and dizzy. My blood pressure was through the roof and my creatinine levels were elevated.
‘Five days, a lot of blood work, scans and a biopsy later, the diagnosis was IgA nephropathy.’
In people with IgA nephropathy, proteins build up and form clumps inside the kidneys’ tiny filters (glomeruli). These clumps of proteins damage the glomeruli and this can cause chronic kidney disease and lead to kidney failure, according to the American Kidney Foundation.
Doctors prescribed cyclophosphamide and high doses of prednisone for Jennifer and she was told that somewhere in the future she would probably need dialysis and/or a kidney transplant.
‘My children, my sisters and even some friends offered to donate a kidney when the time came. I said “thank you”, never thinking it would ever be needed,’ says Jennifer.
Jennifer tried to carry on with life as usual, more out of sheer will than the physical ability to do so. She admits that she wasn’t as much in denial as she was ill informed.
‘Only much later after many hours of research did I realise the seriousness of my condition. A lot changed after that: my diet, my confidence, my sense of security. There was a lot of pressure on my children: they also changed.’
A year later, Jennifer started hemodialysis, twice a week, four hours at a time.
‘I would lie on the bed and watch the blood flow through the tubes. It felt like my quality of life was filtering into a watered down existence. I would get so sick during each session with severe headaches, nausea and weakness dominating my days.’
‘Then my vascular access for dialysis kept failing. The waiting list for a kidney donation from a cadaver is about five years. I wouldn’t live that long though. The reality of this was overwhelming.’
‘My middle sister, Melissa, and I started the workup toward a kidney transplant. There was never a moment during all the many times we discussed it that she hesitated, even for a nanosecond. My brother-in-law confirmed her decision more than once,’ she says.
Melissa lives in New Zealand and did her workup in Auckland.
‘I contacted the national renal centre in Auckland who pointed me in the direction of the transplant co-ordinator. The entire process was quite easy and included blood tests, 24 hour urine tests, a CT scan, cervical smear, mammogram, psychology appointment and nuclear scan to test my kidney function,’ says Melissa.
She then came across to South Africa and waited a month while the plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) and final cross matches were done to assess compatibility says Jennifer’s transplant coordinator at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Mary Duncan.
‘We were a 7/8 human leukocyte antigen match (a tissue typing test to ensure the body won’t attack the transplanted kidney as a foreign body). But I had very high donor-specific antibodies. This meant that only if the plasma exchange was successful would the transplant take place.’
But on 9 May 2017, Jennifer says that she received the greatest gift on earth.
‘My sister selflessly flew half way across the world to give me her kidney. I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end: my children, mother, nieces and nephews also received more time with me in their lives. The magnitude of what she has done is indescribable,’ says Jennifer.
‘We were ecstatic to see how Jen’s creatinine levels had dropped to almost normal just days after the surgery,’ adds Melissa. ‘The thing that stands out most of all for me is meeting people who are so truly invested in their work, people who are rooting for you all the way. From the co-ordinators and nursing staff to the surgeons and doctors, everyone wants a good outcome as much as you do’.
Jennifer encourages those with loved ones experiencing kidney failure to start educating themselves on live kidney donations. ‘You might just be able to tick “save a life” off your bucket list.’