17 years (and more) of medical discoveries

Priscilla VanderVeerMarch 24, 2017

17 years (and more) of medical discoveries.

Someone asked me recently if donated kidneys last forever. It’s been 17 years and a few days since I received one, which has lasted 17 years longer than I thought it would. That may not be forever, but we’re doing pretty well so far.

None of it would be possible without medical advancements.

It seems like a lifetime ago. I was in college, I lived in New Mexico, and I had a different last name. I went to hemodialysis three times a week, worked part time, went to school full time and lived in a small garden apartment with my sister.

There were also lots of health complications because dialysis, while lifesaving, is not particularly good at keeping you healthy for any significant length of time. When you have terrible veins from a lifetime of kidney disease (which means many surgeries to identify and fix dialysis access points), a tendency toward infections and pneumonias and a brand new seizure disorder, dialysis is particularly troublesome. Add it all up, and what you get is someone who, had I not gotten the call that there was a kidney for me, would probably not have survived all that much longer.

But I did get the call. It came at about 10pm Mountain Time on Sunday, March 12. They called and told me to be prepared to come to the hospital, but not to leave yet. They would call me back in an hour and confirm whether I needed to actually get to the hospital or not. They called back, and off I went.

The next day, I received the kidney from a woman named Michelle, who was in a tragic car accident and did not survive. Her parents made the decision to look outside their grief and save someone else’s child. The person they saved happened to be me.

Right away there were problems. My body was rejecting the kidney. The anti-rejection drugs available at the time weren’t working. I was retaining a life-threatening amount of fluid, and the pain I was in was beyond comprehension. I seemed destined for either a major disappointment or worse.

Then medical advancements stepped in. My doctor suggested a (new-at-the-time) procedure for newly transplanted patients, apheresis, to remove the blood from my body, separate the blood into plasma and cells and then reintroduce the cells into my body after removing the antibodies that were rejecting my transplanted kidney. It worked.

Over the years, there have been many times that medical technology has stepped in and worked its magic. There are the daily examples and those I would have hoped to never experience. From the antirejection drugs I take every single day that have kept this kidney working for 17 years, to the antibiotics I take to avoid and treat inevitable infections, to the antivirals that were needed to combat a vicious virus that would have otherwise destroyed my kidney less than two years after I received it.

Each and every one of these medical advancements has led me here, 17 years later, and science willing, many, many more.   

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