Front Porch: Angel freely gives kidney to her cousin

THURSDAY, MAY 10, 2012

Diana Owens, left, received a kidney from cousin Kay Mohr.
Diana Owens, left, received a kidney from cousin Kay Mohr.

Most angels come with beautiful wings. Some come with beautiful kidneys.

I know one of those angels. Her name is Kay Mohr, my friend, and she just gave one of her precious kidneys to her even more precious cousin Diana Owens. It’s a story 30 years in the making.

Diana, who is now 63, was born with defective valves causing urine to backflow from her bladder to her kidneys. “It’s kind of like reflux,” she said. She knew her kidneys would fail someday – and when she was 33 that’s just what happened. Of the family members tested for compatibility, her brother Stanley Johnson and her cousin Kay, who is now 65, were good matches. Stanley was a slightly better match, so he donated a kidney to his sister.

That transplant – on Nov. 2, 1981 – was the first one done at the Kidney Transplant Program at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. You can see pictures of Diana (then Diana Poff) on most of the transplant program’s educational materials.

Diana was a single mother at the time, raising two sons. After that first transplant, she went on to lead a full and active life, successfully raising her children, opening both a children’s haircutting salon and an adult salon in Spokane, remarrying and now enjoying retirement and her delightful granddaughter. But she always knew that transplants don’t last forever. (Fifty percent of transplants from living donors last 15 to 20 years, and 50 percent from deceased donors last 10 to 15 years.)

She was in California this January – 30 years later, an exceptionally successful length of time for a transplanted kidney – when her brother’s donated gift went into failure. She didn’t feel it would be right to call Kay and put her cousin on the spot for an offer made three decades ago, but when Kay heard about it through family channels, she called Diana immediately. The cousins wept together long distance, and Kay called the Kidney Transplant Program right away to get the process started before Diana even returned to town. Kay’s husband, Gary Coyle, was 100 percent in, so it was a go. “He’s so supportive, it’s unbelievable,” Kay said.

Kay underwent a lot of testing – chest X-rays, echocardiograms, blood work, kidney function tests, CT scans, a psychosocial evaluation, the works – with costs picked up by Diana’s insurance. And, of course, Diana, who had begun dialysis, had to be carefully evaluated to be sure her body was in the best shape possible to receive a transplant.

“What we do is pretty much everything to ensure that two people will be able to live well, each with one kidney,” said JoAnn McCleary, kidney transplant coordinator at Sacred Heart. “They both need to be healthy when we’re done.”

There were some hurdles along the way. First was a new round of compatibility tests, especially since Diana was on immunosuppressants and dialysis. The news was good. Then a small stone was discovered in one of Kay’s kidneys, and new tests had to be done to be sure Kay wasn’t producing substances to cause further stone formation. She wasn’t, so they were still good to go.

And then finally, another blood compatibility test to be sure Diana wasn’t developing antibodies because of her first transplant. A nonprofit board Kay and I serve on was having a lunchtime meeting on April 19 when she got the final call: Everything was fine, and a date was set. She broke into tears, but they were tears of joy. All of us at the table were happy for her that day, but worried for our friend.

But she wasn’t worried. I don’t know anyone who was so overjoyed at the prospect of giving over an organ. It’s the most natural thing to do, she maintains. She’s healthy. She loves her cousin. So why wouldn’t she? A lot of people I know who are also healthy and who also love their family members tell me they’re not sure they could do the same. This puzzles Kay.

A few days before the scheduled surgery, she told me: “We feel that God led us to this and will see us through. My cousin and I are very positive about this.”

So, on April 30 the cousins met at the transplant program office for the last round of tests – and for a pre-surgery photo and a hug. On the morning of May 1, they checked in to Sacred Heart, and one surgical team removed Kay’s right kidney and another team transplanted it into Diana – where it began producing urine, just what a good kidney is supposed to do, right there on the operating table.

Diana is now both the first and the 1,189th person to receive a kidney through the Sacred Heart Kidney Transplant Program, which is the only such program in Eastern Washington. Both women are doing well, although Diana will need to be monitored closely. Kay, who will have a routine follow-up as well, will be on leave for three to four weeks from her job as administrative secretary for the Office of Housing and Residence Life at Gonzaga University, and then it’s back to her normal life.

“I thank God for Kay every day of my life and I always will,” Diana said. “She has saved my life.”

Yes, it was truly the most generous of gifts, but here’s why I know Kay is one of those special angels. Back in January, when she learned of her cousin’s need and she made the phone call, she told Diana: “You know that offer I made 30 years ago? It’s still good.” Diana wanted Kay to take some time to be sure. Time wasn’t needed. Kay was sure.

And then Diana told her cousin: “You are the voice of an angel. You are my angel sent from heaven.”

Wings not needed. But the kidney most definitely was.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman.com/columnists.

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