Frank Jimenez was 73 years old when he learned his kidneys were failing, but he wasn't exactly used to feeling sick and tired. For decades he'd worked 10 to 12 hour days, running his theater supplies business. He was a lifelong athlete who built his own house in the countryside outside of Sonoma, Calif. His doctor had no idea what had caused his kidney failure, and he hadn't faced anything like it before. "I'd never been sick in my life," he says. "It was a shock."
Frank worked hard to stay healthy and keep his kidneys going with a good diet, but three years later, his kidneys had deteriorated to the point that he needed dialysis, a procedure in which a machine filters waste products from the blood, essentially taking over the role of the kidneys. Frank spent three days a week in the dialysis chair, and much of his remaining time in doctors' offices. He lost weight, strength and energy. And he could no longer keep his illness a secret from his two daughters, Lynn and Denise.
When Frank finally delivered the news to both daughters each of them immediately volunteered to donate a kidney. As Frank remembers with amusement, the conversation turned into an argument over who would get to be the donor. He stepped in to resolve the dispute: Denise had a child, while Lynn didn't. Noting that if something happened to Denise during surgery his grandson would be left motherless, Frank told Lynn to get tested first, to see if she was a good match. If she wasn't, Denise was next in line.
It was a huge gift to have two willing donors. Patients who find live donors can get a kidney much more quickly than those placed on a waiting list to get a kidney from a deceased donor. In addition, kidneys taken from live donors tend to work better and last longer
For Lynn, the testing process turned out to be the most agonizing part of the process. A business reporter for KGO radio, Lynn was like her father — used to working hard and quickly — and she was anxious to set her father free from dialysis as soon as possible. To her, the tests moved in slow motion. "But I got very good at giving blood and urine samples, and every test I went through meant I was closer," she says.
Several weeks before Christmas, Lynn got the word that she had passed the final test and the surgery could go ahead. She immediately ran out to buy an extra Christmas gift for her father: a small plastic model of a kidney. In gold ink, she decorated the kidney with the name Franklynn — her name and her father's name combined — and below it she wrote February 20, 2003, the date set for their surgery.
When Frank unwrapped the gift on Christmas Eve, he was puzzled. "He looked at the kidney, looked at me, and asked 'What's this?'" says Lynn. "I told him, that's the date. And he immediately asked, 'What time?' He didn't want to be late!"
During the surgery, Lynn's surgeon, Dr. Christopher Freise, was able to use a minimally invasive procedure known as laparoscopic donor nephrectomy. This procedure uses three tiny "keyhole" incisions and a scope with a camera to guide surgeons as they remove the organ. When it's time to take the kidney out, a three-inch-long cut is made in the abdomen. Compared to the more traditional open nephrectomy, which requires a larger incision and cutting through muscle, patients who get a laparascopic nephrectomy tend to have a shorter, easier recovery.
An hour into Lynn's surgery, Frank was wheeled into the room next door. His transplant surgeon, Dr. Sandy Feng, was waiting the moment Lynn's kidney came out, to carry it next door and transplant it into Frank.
Lynn woke up the next morning groggy and sore but determined to see her father, who she knew was a few doors down the hall. She shuffled to his door and peeked in on her sleeping father; for the first time in months, he looked pink rather than a yellowish gray. "It was like a miracle," she remembers. "I could just see that the kidney had taken." Three days later, Lynn and her father checked out of the hospital.
After a few weeks of soreness and fatigue, Lynn recovered and was back at work; years later, she feels no lasting effects from the surgery. Frank, now in his early eighties, has his fair share of aches and pains, but his donated kidney continues to work. He's volunteered to participate in follow-up research — because of his age, doctors are interested to follow his progress after the transplant — and has appeared in videos about kidney donation, including one for UCSF, hoping his story may encourage more people to donate organs. Frank and his doctors still don't know what caused his kidneys to fail; he just knows he's happy to wake up every morning — and very proud of his two daughters.
Story written in December 2008.
Sierra Senyak is a freelance writer in San Francisco.