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Living proof
The gift of life from one sister to another

By CATHY BREITENBUGHER

 

On a Wednesday morning five summers ago, Mary Schneiderís bed at Froedtert Hospital was rolled into a surgical holding area. Nearby was another bed where Schneiderís sister, Amy Sanner, lay waiting for the biggest day of their lives.

Schneider was about to receive Sannerís left kidney.

"She was feeling bad when they were putting my IV in, that I had to go through it," remembers Sanner. "Iím like, ĎItís all right, Mare, itís OK.í"

By dayís end, Schneider had ó for the first time in 12 years ó a fully functioning kidney.

"I remember hearing her voice in the recovery room and thinking that we both made it through surgery," says Sanner. "It was a great feeling."

In 2006, the year Schneider received her new kidney, there were 184 transplants from living donors performed in Wisconsin. Thatís about one-fourth of all transplants that took place in the state that year.

"A living donor is a good thing," says Schneider, who lives in Brookfield.

Schneider had health problems since the mid í90s, when tests during two pregnancies revealed protein in her urine. The problem was focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a gradual scarring in the filtering portion of both kidneys. The cause was unknown.

Sanner, a St. Joseph Hospital surgical nurse who lives in Mequon, routinely accompanied her sister to the doctor as, despite medication, the prognosis worsened. At age 32, Schneider was told a transplant eventually would be necessary.

"We were in the parking lot after one of my appointments and I said, ĎI canít believe Iím going to need a kidney,í and she said, ĎIím going to give you one of mine,í just so matter-of-fact," says Schneider.

Schneider was one of 52 Wisconsin patients who received an organ from a full sibling in 2006. Genetically speaking, only 25 percent of such donors are a perfect match, according to Dr. Christopher Johnson, Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin transplant surgeon.

Sanner was a half-match, but she was an ideal donor because she was healthy and motivated, and she was confident in her decision. Neither of the womenís two brothers were possible donors, and their parents were deceased.

"Sheís such a strong person," says Schneider. "I put my trust in God and her. When someone is willing to do this for you, you just put your trust in them."

By essentially finding her own donor in time, Schneider was able to avoid dialysis, which usually is administered three times a week, and improve her odds.

"To be on dialysis two, three or five years, the reality is the patient just isnít as healthy as if they had been transplanted sooner," says Johnson, who performed Schneiderís surgery.

According to Johnson, there is a great need for kidney donors. As of early June, 1,541 of the 1,928 Wisconsinites on the organ transplant list were waiting for a kidney. "Every year, more people are put on a waiting list to get a kidney transplant than actually get a transplant," he explains. "So, at the end of the year, youíve got more people waiting than there were at the beginning of the year."

Transplant kidneys can come from an unrelated donor ó sometimes, a so-called altruistic donor whoís never even met the patient. Kidney donors can be 18 to 65 years old. At the time she donated her kidney, Sanner was 41; Schneider was 39.

Their pre-transplant workup took about two months, starting with blood-typing for compatibility and other factors, plus blood pressure testing, CT scans and X-rays. Doctors had to be sure the kidney Sanner was keeping was healthy enough to sustain her.

After the surgery, Sanner spent five days in the hospital and was off work six weeks. As the recipient, Schneider needed a couple more daysí recovery in the hospital. Because she was a teacher and the transplant took place in late June, she didnít need time off work.

The night after the operation, Schneider became claustrophobic. The one person who could calm her was her sister, so staff woke up Sanner at 4 a.m., and brought Schneider to her room. The women just knew theyíd be leaning on one another during recuperation. "The joke was who was going to get to whose room first," says Schneider. During their hospitalization, the two sisters who once biked across the state together walked the halls and talked.

Patients who receive a kidney from a living donor survive an average of 10 years longer than those who get one from a deceased donor, notes Johnson.

"What a great bond between any two people, to give a kidney and allow someone to live an extra number of years they might not have had," Johnson adds. "You canít assume people can just wait on a list and get a kidney."

Both women are healthy today, enjoying their families, jobs and hobbies.

Schneider says their relationship hasnít changed ó itís always been close. "Sheís a lot of fun and celebrates life, and has a deep faith. Sheís a really strong person," she says.

As for Sanner, after giving her sister a kidney, she gets the last laugh. "I never have to buy her a gift again," she quips. "Iím set for birthdays and Christmases." M