On Dec. 7, Kathy Lamping wished her brother Robert Lamping both happy birthday and merry Christmas before they both went into surgery, she to donate a kidney and he to receive the kidney from her.
"I'm very grateful - words aren't enough," said Robert choking up from emotion. "She's a hero."
"He's a wonderful brother," said Kathy. "I'm really close to him. I only have one brother. I'm glad I did that for him. I'm feeling wonderful."
Robert, who turned 51 Dec. 6, and Kathy, 53, grew up in Elgin, Ill., where Robert still lives. He is married to Daisy and has an 18-year-old daughter, Alina. Kathy lives in Bemidji and has two sons, Eric Prokuski of California and Bryan Prokuski, 23, of Bemidji.
In a telephone interview from his home in Elgin a week after the surgery, Robert explained that he was diagnosed about eight years ago with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disease characterized by the formation of cysts on the kidneys.
Doctors told him he would need to go on kidney dialysis or receive a transplant by the time he was 60. But at 50 this summer, he said he felt himself deteriorating.
"I couldn't cut the grass. I was cold all the time," he said.
Joint aches, muscle cramps, shortage of red blood cells, loss of taste buds and a restricted diet were all part of the mix of effects of PKD. Robert, a tool and die maker said he was even happy when, because of the economic downturn, his company cut his hours from 50 to 40 per week. He was afraid he would become too ill to work or have to be on dialysis so many hours a week he wouldn't be a reliable employee and wouldn't have been able to keep his job.
"I should have been on dialysis if I didn't have a donor," he said.
He was placed on a kidney transplant list, which includes about 800 people in his region and a four-to-five-year wait. He also sent brochures to Kathy and their two sisters to see if they might be interested in helping him.
"If you get a kidney from a cadaver, you have a 50 percent chance of it lasting six years," Robert said.
A kidney from a living person doubles that expectation, he said.
Kathy said she and her younger sister, Jean, both responded to Robert that they would donate one of their kidneys. She said the hospital tests only one family member for a match at a time, and she was the first.
"I just got my paperwork in sooner," she said.
Kathy could undergo the required testing at MeritCare Bemidji and discovered that she and Robert are perfectly matched for Human Leucocyte Antigens (HLA) immunologically compatibility.
She said her sons were concerned about their mother giving up a kidney, but she reassured them that the procedure wouldn't shorten her life. In fact, she said, when one kidney is removed, the other one expands, not in size but in function to operate like two.
Robert said he had saved money to pay for his sister's flight and other expenses to Chicago where the surgery was performed. However, generous outreach of a friend made that unnecessary.
Kathy raises German shepherds and collies and sometimes travels to dog shows. Her friend, Dennis Kihlstadius, also travels and mentioned that he was just back from Chicago. Kathy told him she would be going to Chicago herself soon.
"He said, Oh, a dog show?' And I said, 'No, I'm going to donate a kidney,'" Kathy said.
She said Dennis asked her if she had bought her tickets already. When she explained she wanted to wait until the doctors gave her and Robert the appointment for surgery, Dennis gave her his frequent flyer miles for round trip tickets to Chicago.
And, because Kathy, who works for Beltrami County, didn't have enough paid time off for the month's stay in Chicago required for the pre-surgery tests and post-surgery recovery, her colleagues donated a couple of weeks of their PTO.
"I owe my life to this rare and special person," Robert said. "I wish to give her and her friends recognition and my deepest thank you for showing one of the highest forms of love and compassion for others."
Kathy said she knows she gave Robert a much better future than he would have had without her gift, and she knows she saved his life.
"It's hard to realize that's what I did," she said.