Michigan friends say kidney donation will bring them closer
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — “I am looking for a hero.”
“I’d like another 12 years with the man I love.”
“I need someone to come forward. They will save my life. Please call.”
Anna Kaschner, 37, made her plea again and again for more than a year through posts on social media.
The kidney she’d had for nearly five years, transplanted from a deceased individual, was failing. She was back on daily dialysis, clearing the toxins from her body with the help of a port in her stomach and a machine in her Lansing home.
Kaschner took more than 10 medications a day, even as her energy waned. The active lifestyle she’d built since her first kidney transplant in 2009 was in limbo, thanks to an auto immune deficiency disease — primary focal glomerulosclerosis — she’d been diagnosed with at 24.
She couldn’t run, lift weights or travel with her long-time boyfriend Jake Bahl anymore.
Kaschner was stuck, waiting, hoping and pleading for a kidney donor to come forward.
“It’s a big ask,” she told the Lansing State Journal (http://on.lsj.com/2sFKJGZ ). “You just wait. The average wait time in Michigan is five years. It doesn’t happen right away.”
“I received some bad news today,” she wrote on Facebook in February. “My dialysis is barely clearing the toxins from my body and my last labs were poor. I’ve been throwing up a lot lately, and that is because my body is very toxic right now. I am in URGENT NEED of a donor.”
The search began to feel futile.
Then Tina Stewart, 44, came forward.
This August the Mason woman, a fellow runner and mother of three, will give Kaschner one of her kidneys.
The two women, who met nearly a decade ago and bonded while they both learned to run, will become family.
“We’ll be sisters,” Kaschner said. “I think we have a pretty special story.”
“But I feel OK, really fine,” Kaschner told a doctor in disbelief 13 years ago.
Her kidneys were failing, he told her.
Extreme swelling in her legs and ankles prompted her to seek medical attention. She was diagnosed with primary focal glomerulosclerosis. Her body was attacking the filters inside her kidneys, he told her. She needed to start dialysis soon.
Less than a year later, she did, using an in-home machine four times a day to filter toxins in her body. How quickly did her health decline?
“It was very, very fast,” Kaschner said. “The entire bottom of my life just fell out.”
She left school and quit her full-time job, unable to be out of the house for more than a few hours at a time between dialysis sessions. She struggled to find medication to control her blood pressure and changed her diet to restrict sodium and potassium.
Kaschner’s name went on the national organ donor registry and, for five years, she waited for a kidney.
Tim Makinen, spokesman for Gift of Life Michigan, said thousands share that experience every year in Michigan. Right now, 3,500 people state-wide are waiting for an organ transplant, he said, and 85 percent of them need a kidney.
“Two or three years into dialysis is when I decided to take back control,” Kaschner said. “I thought, ‘If I can’t change this than what can I change?’”
Yoga helped her focus, she said. She sought certification and started teaching a class at Westside YMCA in Lansing.
Kaschner’s health slowly but steadily declined, Bahl said.
“It was really rough,” he said. “When your mate’s on dialysis, you’re on dialysis as well. You don’t get away from it.”
She didn’t find a living donor.
In 2009, at age 29, Kaschner received a kidney from a deceased individual. It was a new lease on life, she said. She refused to waste it.
“Once I got recovered and got back on my feet, I was like, ’Well, I’ve got this second chance, and I’ve got this body that works properly now. I want to use it.”
Kaschner set her sights on the Hawk Island Triathlon, though she wasn’t good at swimming, biking or running.
“I had never exercised,” she said. “I had a bike ... that I rode back and forth to class. I grew up with a swimming pool, but I didn’t know how to swim. I doggie paddled. There’s a stroke that real swimmers use, and I didn’t know that. I had to learn how to swim properly and to run.”
Kaschner quit smoking and drinking alcohol. She also started running, right around the same time that Stewart did.
The two women met about a year earlier, when Stewart, who had a small housekeeping business, began cleaning Kaschner’s house regularly.
But they got to know each other and became friends after Kaschner’s first transplant, bonding over their mutual plans to complete the upcoming triathlon.
Stewart was navigating an impending divorce. Running became “her strength,” she said, and Kaschner started keeping her company.
“We were doing it for kind of the same reasons,” Kaschner said. “To fill a void.”
The two women trained together.
“I can’t do this,” Kaschner told her when they ran together.
“Yes, you can,” Stewart said. “Let’s go.
Both women kept running after the triathlon.
Kaschner ran countless 5K events, finished three half marathons and then trained and finished a full marathon in Traverse City, walking at the end but crossing the finish line.
“Every time at the start line of a race was terrifying because I never felt like I could 100 percent trust my body after what had happened,” Kaschner said. “Every time I finished a race, I was like, ’Well, that was really, really scary but I did it.”
Bahl said the nearly five years following the first kidney transplant were “a gold time.”
The couple joined the YMCA and traveled. They hiked together. Kaschner started lifting weights and enrolled in graphic design courses at Lansing Community College.
Stewart got remarried in August 2015, and Kaschner attended the wedding.
Life was good. Then Kaschner’s transplanted kidney started failing.
It wasn’t a complete surprise.
Transplanted kidneys have a limited life expectancy of up to 15 years, but Kaschner watched her regular lab test results worsen and felt devastation.
“Instead of celebrating my five-year anniversary of getting a kidney transplant, I was reapplying for disability because I was going back into kidney failure.”
Numbers show the life expectancy of a kidney transplanted from a deceased individual is lower than that of one from a living donor.
Makinen said five years after a transplant the survival rate of a kidney donated from a deceased individual is about 74 percent versus an 85 percent survival rate of a kidney transplanted from a living donor.
In the fall of 2015, Kaschner’s blood pressure skyrocketed. She went to the emergency room and was put back on dialysis.
“The pervasive feeling was ‘I don’t want to do this again,’” Bahl said. “But it’s a thing you can’t get out of the way of.”
Kaschner updated friends and family on her condition through Facebook and pleaded for a living kidney donor to come forward.
In January, Stewart reached out to her. She’d been sitting at her desk at the insurance company where she worked thinking about Kaschner when, she said, it “hit” her.
“Why not me?” she thought.
“I totally feel it was God saying, ‘It is you,’” she said. “I went home that night and re-read her plea for a donor and started doing some research.”
Kaschner was cautiously optimistic but doubtful she’d be a match.
“She said, ‘The chances of you matching are slim to none,’” said Stewart. “I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
Last year there were about 19,000 kidney transplants nationwide, Makinen said, and 5,630 involved living donors. Of those, a little over half of the kidneys came from someone who was not a blood relative of the recipient, he said.
Stewart submitted to a series of medical tests that continued through mid-March before doctors confirmed she was a match for donation.
“I knew from day one it was going to be me,” she said.
Kaschner said the surgery, set for August 7 at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, means everything to her.
“Right now, at this point in my life, this is the single most important gift I have ever received,” she said.
Stewart said the transplant is her chance to help a friend.
“I look at her. She’s got so much life ahead of her,” she said. “There are so many things that this girl needs and wants to do in life. Why can’t she have this opportunity, and how could I ever live with myself if I knew I could do something and I sat back and I didn’t? There’s no way.”
In April, Stewart ran in a 5K kidney run on Michigan State University’s campus with a team of nearly 50 people.
Kaschner attended and the two women wore matching hot pink shirts that read “Training for transplant” on the back and “Share your spare” on the front.
They wear matching necklaces, transplant themed but slightly different. Kaschner’s holds a dangling silver kidney. Stewart’s charm has a hole shaped like a kidney.
Kaschner bought the necklaces. They’re a symbol of their life-long connection, she said.
“It was just something really special,” she said. “This is going to technically make us family. We both just inherited the other person’s family and siblings and everything else.”
“You’re going to make me cry,” Stewart said.
“You help someone if you can help them. That’s what you do.”
Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com