A kidney transplant amid a pandemic: recipient and donor share their story

Local News

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Mary Rapp couldn’t believe her ears when she was told she had kidney failure.

“It felt like your world just went under.”

That’s how she describes the feeling when her doctor told her. Mary had had 25 years of arthritis symptoms, and noticed a flare-up around 2017. In February in 2018, she had bloodwork that showed there were some borderline issues with her kidney function.

“I had it redone, and it came back showing I was in renal failure,” she said.

“I was ready to get a permanent catheter, and the rounding physician looked at me that day and said, ‘why are you here, you are young, on a catheter, you need a transplant so you can move on with your life,'”

From there, Mary decided to get the word out – she needed a donor. With the help of some friends from church, they started the searing process.

She got a referral with Strong Memorial Hospital to move forward with her vision.

In 2019, while Mary was on a trip to Ireland with some family, she got the news:

“All of a sudden, Steve gets the call and he’s the guy,” she said. Steve Rapp, is her brother in-law.

He says he went through a very extensive testing process to qualify to be a donor. “Starts off pretty innocent, urine tests, blood screenings, test for certain things in blood system to make sure I am a candidate … from there it was two full days back to back at hospital including an EKG, stress test, about 30 something vials of blood to be drawn tor various things,” he said. He eventually found out he was a match.

Steve said there was some doubt during the testing, but he held onto hope. “I really wanted this to happen, from how tight of a family and knowing how desperate things were starting to become, there was that hope and we are a family of faith,” he said.

Once they were set for a date to move forward with the surgery, COVID-19 hit.

Dr. Roberto Hernandez-Alejandro of Strong Memorial Hospital says during the pandemic, URMC halted their live donor surgeries for kidney and liver transplants. It halted for about two months while everyone was learning more about the virus. Only deceased donor cases were persisting for that time.

Dr. Hernandez-Alejandro says during that time, it was feasible for those who needed a kidney to wait and reschedule a transplant, because they had that option to stay on dialysis. For people who needed organs like a liver, he says those cases were more likely to continue during that time, as it could not be managed as easily. “Perhaps it’s not ideal, but we could wait and understand more about this virus,” he said. This was the case for Mary, who rescheduled her surgery for Nov. of this year.

But around May, she got a call from the hospital saying live donor surgeries resumed, and that staff felt safe continuing with the originally scheduled surgery for April. The only catch, she and Steve say it wasn’t a normal hospital visit at all.

“We are walking into hospital with masks and gloves on saying don’t talk to anybody don’t touch anything,” said Steve.

The two had to keep reminding themselves why what they were doing was so important.

“It was a very intense day to arrive at 6 in the morning. But part of it was even on the drive up to Strong, there was a gorgeous sunrise off to the East, and we thought, ‘you know what, we are going to be alright,'” Steve said.

Both Steve and Mary say while the experience was tough, it was so worth it.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience something I will cherish forever,” said Steve.

“Just the waking up ‘I made it,” said Mary, as she described the feeling after surgery. “I am thankful  to Strong Memorials transplant program for their willingness to see the possibility and vision. They made this a reality by applying their utmost medical wisdom, expertise and compassion  making my future a possibility,” she said.

Dr. Alejandro Hernandez says Mary and Steve both recovered well. The kidney started working immediately for Mary, and she can go on to live a normal life, he says.

“Things moved pretty well, she had the benefit of not having to wait many years to be transplanted. The fact that Steve stood up, said I want to be a donor, fulfilled the criteria, decided I want to donate one kidney, that was excellent,” said Dr. Hernandez-Alejandro.

“I have energy and stamina that I have not seen for years. Every day is filled with ‘ah hah’ moments of what can do now rather than what I can’t. To all perspective transplant patients the possibility awaits them,” she said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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