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DONATE LIFE: Kidney Connections Pt. 4

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Woman’s transplanted kidney going strong after 41 years

By Kacie Goode

When Deanna Newton was 9 years old, she won an essay contest and told the readers that her mom had been able to give her life twice. Today, Deanna is a 46-year-old woman living with a 90-year-old kidney. When she received the transplanted organ from her mother in the summer of 1976, she hadn’t yet turned 6. 

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As a young child, Deanna had been in and out of hospitals. When she was 2, she underwent open-heart surgery for pulmonary stenosis. But in 1973, when Deanna fell ill again, doctors told her parents it was something else. Deanna was suffering from nephrosis syndrome — kidney disease.

At first, doctors thought Deanna could be helped just with medication, but she continued to decline. The girl had been meeting with a kidney specialist and for a short time, she was placed on peritoneal dialysis, but only one option would help Deanna in the long term. She needed a kidney transplant.

The news was initially frightening and Juanita Pardue recalled thinking her daughter would overcome this disease.

“When she got worse, it made me realize she had to have,” the transplant, Juanita said. “There was no getting over it.”

Family members were tested, and Juanita was determined the best match.

On June 15, 1976, the mother and daughter traveled to the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington and the 8-½-hour transplant was performed. At the time, Deanna was believed to be the youngest person to receive a kidney transplant at that location.

Immediately, Deanna’s life was changed. But no one — not even the Pardues — realized just how long term the fix would be.

Dr. Michael Daily, surgical director for the Adult and Pediatric Kidney Transplantation Program at UK, has performed around 1,000 transplants and has worked with the center for eight years. Most kidney transplants only last between five and 15 years, depending on the donor and a number of other factors. Younger recipients will often need two or more transplants in their lifetime.

“It’s very uncommon to get these 40- or 50-year survivors,” he said.

Last year, BBC News released a report about a woman in the United Kingdom who had received a transplanted kidney 43 years prior, and the organ had “outlasted” medical prediction. Like Deanna, that woman’s donor had also been her mother.

Daily said part of the organ’s longevity could be contributed to the genetic compatibility between parent and child.

“If you got a kidney from your mom, at least half of your immune system is going to be the same as the markers in that kidney,” he said. “It’s much more difficult for the recipient to recognize the kidney as not belonging there.”

The fact that the women also received a kidney from a live donor could also contribute to the lasting transplant.

For example, he said, doctors can often make sure both the donor and recipient are in the best possible shape before the surgery takes place, and surgeries are usually coordinated so that the organ is out of a body for a short period of time.

In a recent transplant involving a deceased donor, he said, the kidney would have been out of a body for about 20 hours before it could be transplanted, whereas with a live donor, it can be placed within an hour.

Living donors also present the chance for much healthier organs to start with, ones that have not been exposed to disease, trauma or other issues related to death.

While visiting with her mother, who turns 90 in September, Deanna recalled growing up being careful.

“I guess I was maybe a little bit overprotective,” Juanita Pardue said, always afraid to let her daughter take part in highly physical activities for fear of injury, though Deanna was still an active child. She was also a stickler for making sure her daughter remained healthy.

Deanna remembered a calendar hanging on the wall that included a schedule of all her medications. Her mother would always make sure she was taking them as she should.

“You’ve got to be sure you take all that medication like you’re supposed to,” Juanita said.

Deanna continues to take medications today, including a low dose of anti-rejection medication and medication to maintain her blood pressure. She also has annual visits with her doctors to monitor her kidney function.

Deanna said she is lucky to have not required a second transplant in all these years, adding she’s part of a Facebook group for organ recipients, and many have required more than one transplant.

When Deanna received a kidney from her mother, the world had only been experiencing organ transplants for about 20 years. It was in 1954 that the first kidney was successfully transplanted from a living donor in Boston, Mass. The procedures were still developing in the 1970s, and organ donation has come far since.

Today, if a recipient has no serious complications, a week or two after the transplant might be spent in the hospital, and a living donor may be out within a matter of days. When Deanna had her surgery, she stayed in the hospital for over a month.

Advances, including more effective immunosuppressive medications, have also improved the survival rate for recipients.

“Back 40 or 50 years ago, rejection rates were huge,” Daily said. But today’s medical advances have helped make rejection much less likely and donation and surgeries are safer.

The list of those in need continues to grow, however, and kidneys in particular are failing faster than donors can be found, which is why organ donation — both from deceased and living donors — is so important.

For more information on organ donation, visit donatelife.net, and for other stories in this year’s series, check out www.kystandard.com.