March 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It was Mother’s Day 2012. My friend Jen Rabine thought she was having an unbearable migraine. Her husband, Chris, drove her to the doctor.

“My blood pressure was 265 over 170,” Jen recalls. “That’s stroke level.”

She was rushed to the hospital where she spent twelve days. Eventually, the prolonged high blood pressure affected her kidneys; she was told they were functioning at 10 to 15 percent. She was constantly cold, her feet, ankles, and legs swelled, and the fatigue was overwhelming.

Jen received her first round of dialysis on her 40th birthday. The next day, she was finally able to go home to Chris and her three kids, Morgan (17 at the time), AJ (10), and Kiel (9). The hope was that the dialysis would restart her kidneys.

However, Dr. Alexander Maskin, Assistant Professor of Surgery on the Kidney Team at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, equates kidneys on dialysis to a car that breaks down all the time. “It can kind of get you where you’re going, but it needs repair a lot.”

The dialysis didn’t do the trick, and six months later, Dr. Maskin recommended that Jen sign the papers to get on the kidney transplant recipient list.

“I didn’t tell a lot of people what was going on,” Jen says, “because it’s my health issue, and I didn’t want people talking about my health, especially when I wasn’t there.”

We football moms started to miss our friend at practices and games. I knew what was going on, but few others did. Out of respect for Jen’s privacy, we said nothing.

“Chris is my best friend, and I just wanted to keep it between us,” Jen says of her husband. “It put a lot on his shoulders. I’d do the same for him.”

One day in June of 2013, Chris confided in my husband (also a Chris) and me that Jen needed a kidney.

I’ve lost people in my life that I wish I could have done something for. Here was an opportunity to do something for my friend. After prying the number out of Jen’s husband, I made the call to see if I could be a match.

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A transplant nurse coordinator took it from there. A coordinator’s job is to protect the donor and make sure you understand every aspect of the donation process. Should you ever have any reservations, she’s like your big sister (the good one)—she’ll back you up and support you, no questions asked.

For example, my coordinator is Connie Lykke. I say “is”, and not “was”, because even after donation, she keeps in touch and continues to answer any questions or concerns I may have pertaining to my kidney donation.

I started with a blood draw, and then there was the tissue match test. After a couple of visits to the UNMC lab and a few phone interviews, I eventually got the call: I was a kidney donor match for Jen.

Jen and I had the blood, and then the tissue matches. We had one genetic marker match, out of six possible matches. But according to Lykke, “A zero antigen (marker) match with a living donor is still way better than a perfect match with a cadaveric donor.”

Dr. Maskin explains further: “A living donor is a better quality kidney. It takes minutes to transplant as opposed to hours, and it lasts twice as long.” According to Dr. Maskin, a living donor kidney transplant lasts 15-20 years, maybe longer. A cadaver kidney transplant typically lasts 6-10 years.

I wanted to tell Jen immediately because I wanted her to know she had a match. I wanted her to just feel some relief.

On a rainy day at Mama’s Pizza, at a long table of adults, coaches, and kids, I leaned over to my friend and quietly said, “Um, hey, I’m a match for your kidney.”

Jen’s reaction was a mixture of shock, confusion, gratitude, and speechlessness.

My twins, Max and Lucy, are 11 years old. Old enough to understand what was happening. We encouraged them to ask any questions or talk over any concerns. They were excited to be included in the process.

On a Tuesday last October, Jen and I went in for transplant surgery. Hours later, my kids assessed my state, swollen from the surgery, and were concerned. When I kissed them goodbye for the night, they cried. That was difficult, but we talked through it.

I was home and in my own bed by Thursday. Jen was home on Friday. I’d wake up achy about 6 a.m., and my husband would jump out of bed to bring me toast, coffee, and a large water. I’d eat that so I could take my pain pills, then go back to sleep for a bit. I’d work hard to get out of bed—I had no idea you use abdominals that much to get out of bed, but you do. Within a week, I was still tender, but the severe abdominal pain was gone. I was healing.

Hours after her surgery, Jen’s swelling had gone down. Jen giggles and says, “The boys said, ‘Hey Mom, your Fiona feet are gone!’”

A week after that, I was back at the football stadium, surrounded by our football family, watching our boys win a game. I returned to work after two and a half weeks. Though the UNMC Transplant team prepared me to have pretty good fatigue for at least eight weeks, my only restriction was to lift no more than 10 pounds for six weeks. It actually took me nine weeks to get my normal energy back.

Eight weeks after surgery, Jen and her husband traveled to Hawaii. Ten weeks after surgery, my husband and I took Max and Lucy to Mexico.

Someone asked a friend of mine, “How could she do that? She has young kids!”

I donated a kidney because I have young kids. I’m trying to teach them to look out for themselves by looking out for others, to be kind and smart, and help people.

There’s also the added benefit of the thorough physical I received to assure my safety during the transplant process. My dad died of heart disease, and I have a family history of cancer, so I got some peace of mind thanks to the detailed examination of my lungs, heart, kidneys, spleen, and bladder.

Jen and I are closer after the surgery but don’t get to talk every day. I gave her my kidney so that she could go back to busy mom life. We couldn’t be happier for each other that we’re both back to the busy life of a mom.

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