Commonwealth Journal

December 14, 2013

Local woman donates kidney to member of her church

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Eubank — This Christmas has a very special meaning to one local woman who received the gift of life itself from the most unlikely of places.

Eubank resident Rebecca Carnell looks back on fall 2012 and remembers how uncertain her future seemed.

“It was like being in a dream at first,” said Carnell, describing her reaction to her doctor’s news that she would need a new kidney. “I didn’t know how to feel for awhile.”

Carnell had dealt with polycystic kidney disease since her initial diagnosis in 2005, and some hard choices were approaching. Carnell was in the first stages of kidney failure thanks to the hereditary disease, characterized by clusters of cysts that develop in the kidneys. Her doctor told her that a transplant was imminent, and dialysis — the artificial process of eliminating waste and unwanted water from the body’s blood — would be a future possibility as well.

That’s when Carnell decided to take her prayers public — a big step for a woman who’d kept her health issues mostly to herself. Carnell, a member at Eubank Baptist Church, has long had a strong faith in God, and she used her weekly email devotionals, sent out to a number of church-goers, to ask for prayers.

“That was when I started letting people know to pray,” said Carnell.

Carnell received in response emails of support and encouragement. But she also received a response from Margie Hart, a fellow church member, that gave her pause.

“We really didn’t even know each other that well,” said Carnell. “She (Hart) sat in front of me at church.”

Hart was simply asking that Carnell let her know if she needed anything — and she meant it.

“I just told her ‘Let me know if you need anything ... blood platelets ... a kidney ...’” said Hart, in describing her email.

Carnell was floored.

“I just said ‘Are you serious?!?’” laughed Carnell.

But still, the odds weren’t really in favor of the two matching. According to the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation, around 95,000 names are currently on the wait-list for a kidney transplant. Recipients often wait years for a possible donor, and even then, the donor and recipient undergo a complicated process that helps ensure the highest chance of a successful transplant. Any number of factors can rule out a kidney donor.

Carnell knew what lay ahead.

“I just thought ‘Well, what are the odds that the first person to be tested is a match?’” said Carnell.

A few weeks later, Hart contacted Carnell with astounding news. They matched.

“We’ve got that Christian DNA,” said Hart, laughing.

The two underwent a series of tests to determine whether there were any underlying health conditions that would affect the transplant. Both women were found to be healthy.

“All along the way, they’re making certain that this is what you want to do,” said Hart. “They were always asking ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”

Hart stood strong in her decision. In fact, she said she was sure the two would be a match before they even learned that she was eligible to donate to Carnell.

“From the get-go, I felt this is what (I’m) supposed to do,” said Hart.

And Hart’s confidence was contagious to Carnell.

“Margie’s attitude gave me courage too,” said Carnell. “And I just told myself ‘If this is supposed to be ... it will all be fine.’”

And it was.

The two women underwent the procedure at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington on March 21, 2013. Hart was able to go home three days later, and Carnell left the hospital four days after the surgery.

The two haven’t looked back. Hart returned to work a couple weeks after the surgery, and Carnell has been able to continue living much as she always pictured.

“I didn’t realize how sick my body was until I got that new kidney and felt better,” said Carnell, who noted her blood work “gave her away” when her doctor told her she would soon be needing a new kidney.

Although Carnell hadn’t yet entered into the more severe stages of kidney failure — needing daily or weekly dialysis, fluid retention, itching, etc. — she was nonetheless fatigued, and struggling with high blood pressure. Both are symptoms of kidney issues.

But now, Carnell is nearly nine months out from the procedure, with no signs of complications such as her body’s rejection of the new organ. Of course, Carnell’s new kidney requires discipline. She must carefully watch for any rapid weight gain (more than three pounds within 24 hours may suggest a decrease in kidney function) and any low-grade fevers, and she must deal with a significant number of daily medications. Those medications suppress Carnell’s immune system, which lowers the chance of a rejection. Those medications also make her more susceptible to infections and illnesses, and they have additional side-effects as well. She’ll have to take the medications the rest of her life.

But to Carnell, that’s nothing compared to what she may have faced. Carnell has seen the end stages of kidney failure. Polycystic kidney disease is genetic, and a child has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it from a parent. Carnell’s father and all of his six siblings were diagnosed with the disease. Four of them underwent transplant procedures. At least one of Carnell’s siblings has tested positive for the disease, and she has several cousins who are also battling the disease.

Carnell’s family was ineligible to donate kidneys. Even if a family member’s kidney showed no signs of cysts before the transplant, the hereditary nature of the illness could result in the disease’s appearance in the donated kidney.

“I will never ever ever forget Margie for doing this for me,” said Carnell.

Hart just wants others to understand what they can do for someone in need — and she simply emphasizes that she feels “fortunate” that she was able to donate.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of the difference they can make to someone,” said Hart.

Carnell had similar sentiments.

“Maybe we can get the word out, have people think about it,” said Carnell. “There’s lots of stories like ours.”

For more information on polycystic kidney disease, go to the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation’s website at www.pkdcure.org. For more information on kidney donations, go to the National Kidney Foundation’s website at www.kidney.org.