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Kidney donation from niece saves aunt's life

Each year 69,000 die from kidney failure


by: GRESHAM OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Peggy Parker, left, shares a laugh with her aunt, Amie Griggs. Parker saved Griggs life by donating a kidney to her in December.Every year in America, 69,000 people die from kidney failure. Many of those lives could be saved if more people were willing to donate a kidney, says Peggy Parker, of Gresham a registered nurse who does home visits and community outreach for Care Oregon.

Parker knows what she’s talking about, not only from a professional perspective but from first-hand experience. In early December, Parker and her aunt, Amie Griggs, of Boring went into surgery together at Legacy Good Samaritan Transplant Center, where Parker donated one of her kidneys to Griggs.

It was a lifesaver for Griggs, 50, who had gotten sicker and sicker before the transplant to the point that she was vomiting everything she ate because her body was so ill from kidney failure. Her illness, polycystic kidney disease, is hereditary, and she got it from her father.

According to the website of the American Kidney Fund, more than 600,000 Americans have polycystic kidney disease, or PKD. The disease causes cysts to grow on the kidneys, damaging them, and over time leads to kidney failure.

Many people think kidney failure can be solved with dialysis, said Parker, but they’re wrong.

“Dialysis just barely keeps you alive,” she said.

The other answer to kidney failure is a transplant, with the kidney coming from a recent death or better, from a living donor. People don’t really need two kidneys, Parker said, and even though it’s more of a painful process for the donor than for the recipient, a life is not only saved, but the quality of life for the recipient is vastly improved.

Griggs said her father’s mother had PKD and died at 42 in 1940, but the cause of her death was only discovered after an autopsy. Griggs said the disease doesn’t fully manifest usually until a person is well into adulthood. She was tested early for PKD, at age 7, but the results were inconclusive, she said. Her three older sisters tested negative for having PKD, so she though she was safe.

“The funny thing is, most people with PKD do not have a problem until they turn 40, and then it becomes active,” she said. “But a lot of people, if they find out early, decide not to have kids.”

It was only when her own daughter, at age 14, started having medical problems that Griggs fears came true. Her daughter had PKD, and so did she.

Griggs’ daughter has since decided she will not have children, she said.

Griggs’ grandfather also succumbed to the disease, and although she was only 3 years old when he died, watching him undergo dialysis at home is her earliest memory.

“My cousin and I would go watch grandpa ‘juice’ as we called it,” she said.

But if you’re going to get a transplant, it’s better to have one before starting dialysis, Griggs said, and that’s the point she was at when she went on a kidney transplant waiting list.

Griggs and Parker were close before the surgery, even though Parker is five years older than her Aunt Amie, whom she said treated her like “one of the little kids” when they were children. Now they have inside jokes, like calling Griggs’ new kidney “Little Peggy,” and Parker reminding her that her kidney is five years older than the rest of her.

The initial aftermath of the surgery is harder on the donor, Griggs said, because it is major surgery. But what recipients feel initially is euphoria, she said.

“For the recipient, all of a sudden our body is working and you feel so much better,” Griggs said. “You have euphoria from that and also from high doses of steroids, which also cause euphoria.”

But both are recovering and Parker has already started back to work. Griggs hopes to return to work soon, but first her doctors have to get her anti-rejection drugs just right, with side effects that make her hands shake, and consider whether she needs further surgery now or later.

Normally, Griggs said, doctors wait to remove the damaged kidneys until the recipient has had at least six months to heal, but they may have to move earlier with her because of the size of her kidneys. Because of the cysts, one kidney is the size of a football and the other is the size of a cantaloupe and they are pressing on her lungs, stomach, intestines and other organs. To top all that, every now and then one of the cysts breaks, which is intensely painful for Griggs.

But she’s not complaining, she said, because she’s so much better and now has a chance to live.

“You have to understand, she gave me the greatest gift there is — a life,” Griggs said.

Parker said when she first learned Griggs needed a kidney, her first thought was to do it.

“With me, it was more like, why wouldn’t I do it for somebody I knew, and I immediately said I would be tested,” she said.

But it was weeks before she told Parker, because the testing process is lengthy and she waited until she was 75 percent sure that she was a match. Then she surprised Parker at work with the news.

But you don’t have to be related to be a donor, Parker said, and sometimes relatives don’t provide a good match. The important thing, she said, is that healthy people don’t need two kidneys and donating can save thousands of lives each year.

The transplant surgery on Griggs and Parker was performed at Legacy Good Samaritan Transplant Center which can be reached at 503-413-6555. More information is also available at the National Kidney Foundation (www.kidney.org) and the United Network for Organ Sharing (www.unos.org.)