CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
Kathy Suhr likes to say that everyone just needs one kidney — including her.
Unfortunately, she currently has three in her body, and none of them are working the way they’re supposed to — meaning that Suhr, who many Milwaukee Catholics will know as the former owner of the Marian Center, as a Lay Associate School Sister of Notre Dame and from her numerous church and community endeavors, is in a desperate search for a living kidney donor.
“I thank God for my faith,” she says. “I don’t know how else I would get through this.”
She didn’t expect to be in this situation after receiving a kidney transplant in November 2017. That operation, too, was the culmination of a long search for a living donor. After more than a dozen candidates were disqualified, she finally located a seemingly perfect match — the woman had everything in common with Suhr, down to blood type and religion.
But almost immediately following the procedure, it became apparent that “the new kidney was not going to fully blossom and become functioning,” said Kathy’s husband, Bill.
Currently, Kathy’s quality of life is at an all-time low. Her new kidney “has helped to the point where she doesn’t have to be on dialysis,” said Bill, but is ultimately ineffective.
“One of the big measures of effectiveness is called a GFR (Glomerular Filtration Rate) — your GFR is probably between 70 and 90. Kathy’s is 8,” said Bill. “If you don’t have a GFR over 10, your body produces hardly any hemoglobin or red blood cells.” The painful hormone shots to stimulate the bone marrow are approximately $7,500 each.
Now the Suhrs have Kathy placed with the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where surgeons have performed more than 3,760 living donor kidney transplants since 1963. Their Rochester clinic ranks No. 1 for diabetes and endocrinology in the U.S. News and World Report Best Hospitals rankings.
Three of Kathy’s cousins have offered their kidneys but none were matches; Bill is ineligible to donate because he is a cancer survivor and has kidney disease in his family.
Living kidney donors typically spend four to six days in the hospital, depending on what type of procedure is done and their rate of recovery. The surgery is a laparoscopic procedure that is expected to take about three hours and make an incision of only about 3 inches. Kathy’s last donor had surgery on a Tuesday morning, went home on Thursday and only needed to take one Tylenol, said Bill.
“Donors most often have no change in lifespan, lifestyle or overall kidney function. The remaining kidney actually starts to become even more efficient at doing its work,” he said.
There is no expense to the donor — all medical costs are paid by the Suhrs’ insurance, and the Suhrs will pay for all travel expenses and time off from work.
Kathy’s initial transplant failed not because of anything having to do with Kathy’s health, say the Suhrs, but because of the transplant team’s failings, which they also say that team acknowledges.
Bill said he hopes Kathy’s story can serve as a cautionary tale to other patients, whether they are facing kidney issues or other health concerns, to do their homework and “be your own best advocate.”
“If I hadn’t been there, she would have died,” he said. From a last-minute switch in surgeons that the Suhrs weren’t informed of to medication dosage mistakes, everything seemed to go wrong with the handling of the initial transplant, he said. Ultimately, a hematoma went undetected and began to crush the new kidney, resulting in acute tubular necrosis.
Kathy’s medical odyssey began unexpectedly back in 2015, when she suffered an innocent-seeming dog bite at her vacation home in Florida. The bite sent her into atrial fibrillation and resulted in blood pressure that was almost impossible to control. Doctors administered medications that caused her kidney function to further decline. By the end of 2016, she had to go on dialysis to survive.
One lesson the Suhrs say they have taken from Kathy’s experience is to advocate for kidney health, keeping in mind that the primary causes of End Stage Renal Disease are diabetes and hypertension. They encourage anyone with one, or both, of those ailments to be very vigilant and work closely with a physician.
Through the last four years, Kathy’s Catholic faith has been a “lifeline” to her, she said.
“For me, it’s very good that I’m Catholic, because everything makes sense. I feel lucky that I have that,” she said. “I try to accept whatever God has for me each day.”
Anyone interested in exploring the possibility of donation can contact the Suhrs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-827-9280.
To learn more about living kidney donation, visit the National Kidney Foundation’s website at kidney.org.