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Islander Julie Gardner, left, donated a kidney to her best friend, Theresa Luhman. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Islander Julie Gardner, left, donated a kidney to her best friend, Theresa Luhman.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Islander gives kidney to lifelong friend

Getting by with a little help from your friends is one thing, but getting a kidney from your childhood friend shows another kind of dedication.

In late February, Islander Julie Gardner showed such dedication to her lifelong friend, Theresa Luhman, by donating a kidney to her. Luhman has been ailing from a genetic kidney disorder called polycystic kidney disease and needed a kidney because her renal function was failing.

“I didn’t think I was going to need the transplant for a couple more months,” said Luhman, who was diagnosed with the disease about 30 years ago while in her 20s. “Because transplanted kidneys don’t work forever, doctors advise you to wait to have the surgery until you absolutely have to.”

The pair of 53-year-olds went into surgery together on Feb. 25 to prevent Luhman from going on dialysis. Luhman’s kidneys had slowly deteriorated from an influx of cysts that eventually took over her organ’s tissues. Though doctors left both kidneys in Luhman’s body since they did not cause pain, surgeons placed the new healthy kidney underneath her pelvis.

Polycystic kidney disease is the most common life-threatening genetic disease, affecting more than 600,000 Americans and approximately 12.5 million people worldwide, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Luhman flew to Seattle from her home in Kalispell, Mont., for the transplant after Gardner cleared the necessary tests for donation during the past year. Gardner surprised her best friend with the news that she was going to be her donor. Originally, Luhman’s husband, Dale, was going to donate his kidney. But after doctors told them it wouldn’t work out, Luhman told Gardner the bad news. Gardner told her friend then that she would look into the possibility of donating her kidney.

Then several months later, Gardner called Luhman to tell her that she had passed all the tests and would be giving her kidney when it was needed.

“I was so surprised because she had never mentioned to me that she was being tested other than that first time,” said Luhman. “She was out getting tested and never said a word. And that’s not something I could have ever asked her to do.”

Living donors such as Gardner are becoming more common, though not necessarily more frequent. In the past, doctors limited live donors to close relatives, but years of medical advancements, mainly in immunosuppressant technologies, enable most healthy persons today to donate one of their kidneys. Gardner hopes her story educates others of the ease of donating because the list of needed kidney donations remains long. Over 95,000 Americans are currently waiting for an organ transplant, and in 2006, 3,196 kidney patients died while waiting for a donor, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

“I want no credit for doing some altruistic, humanitarian act,” said Gardner. “I did this because it was easy to do. There’s no downside for me, and the kidney is one of the few organs you can give while living.”

With the successful surgery, Luhman avoids dialysis and the long wait-list for a transplant, something she watched happen with her mother while growing up. Luhman inherited the fatal genetic disease from her mother, who died in 1989 at the age of 58. On dialysis for 30-plus years, Luhman’s mother was the longest running dialysis patient on record when she died and the third person to have her parathyroid removed.

“She was amazingly determined to see me grow up,” said Luhman of her mother. “She was so tickled to meet her grandchildren.”

While she was crushed and upset when first diagnosed, Luhman said she has lived in denial of the disease for most of her life. However, in response to her condition, she adopted a healthy lifestyle centered around a vegan diet and consistent exercise.

“She has shown great self-discipline,” said Gardner of her friend. “She has watched her diet and made healthy choices. She ran a triathlon in her 50s, twice.”

While Luhman is an only child because doctors recommended her mother not have another child after she was diagnosed, Luhman has two grown children of her own. Her maternal grandfather also succumbed to the disease.

In recent years, the recommendation not to have children after diagnosis has changed. Luhman’s doctors told her there might even be a cure by the time her children reached the age when the disease begins to show symptoms. Both of Luhman’s children live in the Seattle area. Neither has been diagnosed with the disease, although they retain a 50-50 chance of inheriting it.

“While there’s no cure yet, doctors say it’s on the way,” Luhman said.

Luhman and Gardner met in the eighth grade at Ruth McClure Junior High in the Queen Anne neighborhood. The two said they knew the day would come when Luhman may face the dreaded diagnosis and need a transplant. But they continued on as friends regardless. In college, they screened each other’s dates and teased the other’s boyfriends. Later, Luhman planned Gardner’s wedding reception after she returned to the United States and was married in South Africa. Gardner was Luhman’s maid of honor. Today, they are both married, and Gardner’s two daughters attend MIHS. Gardner works for the King County Bar Association after spending years traveling the world working for the state department. She said that the donation does not change her lifestyle. She can no longer take Ibuprofen pain relievers, and doctors recommended that she avoid contact sports, such as football, that could injure her lone kidney, she said with a laugh.

Luhman headed back to Montana on Saturday after celebrating her child’s birthday. While her two children are approaching the age when commonly diagnosed with the disease, she is comforted by the ease of her own experience and her doctor’s assurances of progress to be made in medical science. But she encourages those interested to donate, given the need.

“One of the hardest parts of all this was sitting in the waiting room and hearing other kidney patients tell their stories,” said Luhman. “Some have had to wait three to five years for a transplant and they would get a call every six months about a possible donor. I feel lucky not to have gone through that.”

For more information about organ donation, go to www.organdonor.gov or call the Swedish Hospital Organ Transplant Program at 386-3660.

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