By Marlys Kruger
During the holiday season, most of us find a way to help others who are in need. Whether it be donating our spare change to the Salvation Army red kettle at a department store, giving food items to one of the many school, church or community organizations that bring them to local food pantries, or giving Christmas gifts to families who we know can’t afford them for themselves. But Renee Wininger (formerly Scheidecker), daughter of Jan now of Caledonia, MN and Bob of Colfax, and a 1983 graduate of Colfax High School now living in Eau Claire, went quite a bit farther in her gift giving several weeks ago.
Through the National Kidney Registry (NKR), Renee decided to donate one of her kidneys to a complete stranger. It was a way for her to show her appreciation to others for when she became ill herself many years ago. After graduating from high school, Renee moved to the Madison area for school and lived there 17 years. While she was there, she wasn’t feeling well one day and took herself to a hospital. An emergency room Doctor didn’t think her problem was anything serious but decided to do an ultra sound and run some other tests just to be sure. After getting the results back, he informed Renee she had a rather large blood clot and any movement at any time could force it to move and result in instant death.
“Of course, that scared the heck out of me,” Renee said. “I had to go on a course of treatment including blood thinners to dissolve it. I am very lucky it was found in time.”
Living in Madison by herself made her realize she wanted to get closer to home and to her family. Renee decided to move to Fergus Falls, MN to live by her sister Tami and her family. While living there, she was set up on a blind date with her future husband, Neal, who was originally from Gilman, WI. and eventually, they ended up moving to Eau Claire. Her younger sister Michele also lives in this area now, too.
Several years ago, Renee began to think about how she could help someone who was in need due to an illness.
“I always donated blood but have been unable to donate blood marrow because of the problem with the blood clot,” she said. “One day I just got on the internet and starting looking for options to help someone. I knew I only needed one kidney to live on so I got on the UW Medical Center website and discovered they are second in the nation in performing transplants. After contacting them, I filled out an eight page form which included my medical history and reasons for why I wanted to become a donor. I passed that first part, then had to go to Madison for an interview with the transplant coordinator, a social worker and a psychologist. I passed that part, too.”
The next stage was a little harder. She spent a whole day taking medical tests which included giving up 19 vials of blood, lots of urine samples and having X Rays and a Cat Scan done. She also met with a kidney specialist and a blood specialist.
“I was so excited when they called me a week and a half later to tell me I was eligible to donate,” Renee said. “I was jumping up and down when they told me the news.”
The final step was to decide how to donate. Renee looked into the NKR, which is one of several non-profit groups that uses kidney paired donation. They make transplants possible for renal patients who have a willing donor but who do not match that donor’s blood type or antibodies. Instead of giving a kidney directly to a loved one, the donor essentially swaps an organ with a stranger who also has a willing but incompatible donor.
“Normally, a person could wait for years to get a kidney but the time can be cut down to months with this method of “swapping,” Renee said. “We had a chain of nine donors at one time and six people ended up getting a kidney through the chain.”
The process wasn’t as difficult as most people would think, according to Renee.
“I was in the hospital in Madison three days,” she said. “It was a three hour surgery which is done by laparoscopy now with just three small incisions and the kidney is pulled right out. I had a 2-3 week recovery and went back to work after that. I have no real problems, I just can’t take certain over the counter medications anymore.”
Although her mom wasn’t crazy about the idea of her giving up a kidney, she knew this was what Renee wanted and came to help her out after the surgery.
“She worried like all moms do about me getting sick and maybe needing it myself some day. But I convinced her the good out weighed the bad in my decision,” she said.
Most donors don’t find out who their kidney went to, but Renee did find out right away hers went to someone in Wisconsin. And imagine how surprised she was to receive a letter in the mail three weeks after the donation from the person who received the kidney.
“The man who has my kidney sent me a beautiful letter to thank me,” she said. “He said his life has changed drastically and he can now lead a normal life. He suffers from Polycystic Kidney Disease and of his six children, three of them also have it. His father also had it and received a transplant in 1980 and lived many years with the new kidney before dying from the disease. His wife donated one of hers through the chain at the NKR and hers went to someone unrelated, too.”
Renee hopes by making everyone aware of how many people are in need of a healthy kidney, more people will look into donation. There are more then 91,000 on the waiting list for a kidney and of the 16,812 transplants in 2011, only 429 were through the swap, or paired donor exchange with living donors while the rest came from a deceased donor.
“I realize this is not something everyone wants to do, but for me it was a great way to help someone,” Renee said. “To receive that letter and know I had done something that (for me) wasn’t all that difficult to do made me very happy. It is just a nice feeling and I hope the NKR can find more donors in the future,” she added.
Renee is more than willing to talk to individuals, groups or organizations who want to learn more about the process of donation. She can be reached at 715- 830-0570.