Rich and Kathy Bennek are the owners of Creekside Farm and Rich works for Dow Agriscience selling seed corn. When his daughter’s mother-in-law needed a kidney, Rich became the donor.
Q: What happened to make you donate a kidney, Mr. Bennek?
In April of 2011 our youngest daughter Erin called home and was talking with her mother and telling her about how Linda Reis, Erin’s mother-in-law, was disappointed because someone who was hoping to donate a kidney to her failed the test.
Q: Why was she in need of a kidney?
Linda has a genetic disease called polycystic kidney disease. Cysts develop on the kidney and reduce its function. Her kidneys just were not doing the filtering they needed to do. She had been taking dialysis for about a year at that time, but I didn’t know she was needing to have a kidney transplant. It was really a miserable situation for her. So I said, “Hey, I’ll try it!”
Q: What was the process of diagnosing your compatibility to Linda?
I made several phone calls and went through all kinds of procedures. They care as much about the donors’ health as the recipient. They don’t want the donor’s health to suffer. I went through a battery of tests. I’ve been tested from head to toe.
Q: What kind of tests did you undergo?
Kidney, obviously, but additionally heart, stress tests, x-rays, cat scans, full physical, blood workup, even a psychiatric evaluation. They found out that I was healthy so we went to Indiana University, which is close to where she lives in Illinois. I did all of my health work-ups here at Chapel Hill, but the plan was that I’d fly into Indiana and donate there. But, they turned me down. I have a little valve that they said someday in the future might need to be repaired and it would be better for me to have two kidneys if that time comes. So we decided, alright, let’s try Loyola in Chicago. And they turned me down as well because of the same valve.
Several months passed and I said, let’s try UNC. That’s where I had done all of my tests. Let’s just keep trying. One Sunday night one of their heart people called me and said, “I don’t see any reason at all why you can’t donate. That valve does some funny things when you get up to 140 beats per minute, but you’re healthy.”
Unfortunately almost a year had passed at this point and blueberry season was coming. We started doing more testing and Linda had to come out to UNC for them to meet her.
Q: When does blueberry season end?
It ends about the first part of August. So we scheduled the surgery for Aug. 21 of this year. We picked the last of the blueberries the first weekend of August. We had time for clean-up and the other stuff you have to do before you shut down. So on the 21st at six in the morning Linda and I were checked in. I was on the table by 11 a.m. and they took my left kidney. I was awake by three p.m.
By seven or eight o’clock that evening Linda was off dialysis.
It was that fast?
When you take a kidney from a living donor the kidney doesn’t go to sleep so it starts working immediately.
They first took a look at my kidney arthoscopically. Even after having all of these X-rays and cat scans they still want to look at it. They aren’t sure they can take it until the see it.
Q: So the process could end with you on the table?
Yes. Right there. There are people who go into the surgery and come out with their same two kidneys. In my case, they liked what they saw!
They bring in two teams of surgeons. One team waits for the donor kidney. They did some checking in Linda to prepare her. After they harvested the kidney they walked it across the hall and started a big procedure on her.
Q: What kind of scarring goes with this surgery?
I have a little (holds up his fingers about four inches across) scar above my belly button. They used to have to crack you open and go into the back. Now they just have to make a little incision where they bring the kidney out. Linda’s scar is a much larger U-shape. She obviously had a much harder recovery. I only had to go over to UNC at two weeks and again at a month after the procedure for follow up tests.
Linda has three kidneys now. It would have to be another surgery to remove hers, so they just leave them. My kidney is in her abdomen area. She says she can feel the outline of it when she puts her hand on it. For the longest time she didn’t know what she was feeling and she asked the surgeon. He said that my kidney is front and center, all attached.
Q: How long did she have to stay in North Carolina for the procedure?
She was here two or three weeks before the procedure. She and her husband, Ed, lived over in Chapel Hill. Then she stayed several weeks after the procedure. She was here almost three months. She was able to make it home for her grand-daughter’s birthday.
Q: What are the financial implications for the donor?
The recipient’s insurance pays for all of the tests and the procedure 100%. Even with all of the tests I had if I had not been able to donate, her insurance would still have covered my tests.
Q: What kind of residual pain do you have?
Since it was done arthoscopically on my end there isn’t much. I had some recovery time. I had the surgery on a Tuesday morning and was home Thursday afternoon. Fortunately the people in my corporation were fine with me having some office time for a month. I worked a half day in the office on Friday. By about two in the afternoon I would get sleepy and have a nap. I took pain medication for the first week, but then weaned off of it the second week. Then just the occasional aspirin was all that was needed.
She and I both think the hardest part is having to sit for long periods of time. We could stand all day long, but sitting gets uncomfortable. Driving for hours is rough. Linda and her husband just had to take an additional day to drive from UNC to their home in Robinson, Illinois.
She has been able to take less and anti-rejection medication as time has gone on. We aren’t genetically related at all, but she’s like a sister to me now. When we went into this process I knew their was only a five percent chance that I’d ever match up with anybody and I didn’t want Linda to be disappointed again. But we matched up.
So the message I have is, people can live with one kidney. There is no reason to go to our grave with two. We should all be donors in the final days and for those people who are healthy enough they should consider donating a kidney now. There are an awful lot of people who need kidneys and want to get off dialysis. Dialysis isn’t a good way to live.
Correspondent Holly Lock