When Frank Payne donated a kidney to his 10-year-old daughter Ellie in 1970, he and his wife, Carolyn, hoped the organ transplant might give their child at least one more year of life.
They got much more, a bridge to another 50 years and counting for Ellie Payne, 60. On May 1, the date of that lifesaving procedure, she and her parents plan to celebrate the milestone together in Spokane – in quarantine – along with Ellie Payne’s husband, Donald Dover. On May 8, she turns 61.
Over time, Ellie Payne had two other kidney transplants, but that first one provided 11 years of healthy growing up time. She finished high school in the top 10 of her class and two years of college. Transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl did that early operation at the University of Colorado.
“At that time, the possibility of a transplant was like going to the moon,” said Carolyn Payne, 83.
“After she got sick, they started talking about a donor. I have a different blood type, so I wasn’t a consideration, but Frank – her daddy – was a match.”
Frank Payne, now 86, had worked many years in construction. The family then lived in Caldwell, Idaho.
When Ellie started losing kidney function, it meant frequent trips between home and visits to organ transplant experts in Denver. Carolyn said they were told Ellie’s kidneys were congenitally too small and couldn’t keep up, so by fall 1969, the outcome seemed bleak.
“We knew she didn’t have long to live unless she got a miracle, which she did,” Carolyn said.
The family got through a difficult period back then, including other family hardships, Frank said. A wide pool of donors is possible today, but 50 years ago, it was just close relatives.
“It was all research and development then; it was very rare,” Frank said. “We had medical insurance, but they wouldn’t pay for my surgery because there was nothing wrong with me.”
Still, he was thrilled to be a donor match for his daughter. “I was more than willing. I had a good feeling about it.”
Back then, removing one of his kidneys meant a large incision and a long recovery while he didn’t work. “It was tough times having no income and kind of working on faith,” he said. “We made it.”
The anti-rejection drugs were relatively new in 1970, Carolyn said, so they had to wait to see if Ellie would respond well and that her body wouldn’t attack the transplanted kidney.
Ellie said she doesn’t remember a lot about those days other than a few moments.
“I kind of remember we both went into the operating room at the same time,” she said. “My dad and I were on gurneys next to each other and held hands.”
Today, it’s still difficult to believe, she said. “The fact that I have been here this long is crazy. When you hear of other people who have had transplants who make it a very short time, and for me to be around for 50 years, that’s nuts. For some strange reason, I just keep going.
“I’m the Energizer transplant person.”
The family moved to Spokane in 1981 after Frank began construction of the former Hewlett-Packard building in Liberty Lake. Around then, Ellie was living near Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma for school when she got sick again and moved home.
She was on dialysis for 14 months until a second kidney transplant in Seattle that year. The family was told that kidney came from a Spokane donor after an accidental death.
“That kidney lasted for 20 years, and they were good years,” said Carolyn. Her daughter worked at KAYU-TV in Spokane, crafted pottery and met her husband. The Paynes built a Spokane home 13 years ago that included an apartment for the couple.
After an unsuccessful hip-replacement surgery in 2000, Ellie’s health started to decline. By the next year, she needed another kidney transplant.
“The third transplant was done here in Spokane in November 2001,” Carolyn said. “That was one of the first transplants here at Sacred Heart Medical Center.”
Again, the family was told the Spokane donor had died in an accident. “It was a perfect match.”
Ellie said she’s grateful for people who declare on their driver’s license a willingness to be a donor. More than 100,000 people in the U.S. await kidney organ transplants, according to 2016 data from the National Kidney Foundation.
Donor recipients must take anti-rejection, immunosuppressant medicines daily for as long as a transplanted kidney is working. They’re also are at a higher risk for infections.
That 1970 procedure, however, has always held a significance for her family, she said.
“I think for me and my family, and anyone who knew about it, it was so strange back then,” she said. “They were still figuring out what was the best way to do this.
“The big thing was to figure out medications that would stop my body from rejecting the new kidney.”
Carolyn credits doctors as well as the family’s careful watch over her daughter’s health.
It meant a regimen of medications, clinic visits and paying attention if others had colds and infections, she said. If a family member started getting sick while Ellie was still a youth, she was sent to stay at her grandmother’s home.
Fifty years ago, the Paynes also remember widespread community support. People showered them with meals and help. The Caldwell Basque Charity’s auction fundraiser, more than 50 years old, designated one year’s event toward Ellie’s organ transplant costs.
“Ellie was the recipient of a Basque community fundraiser with an auction, dancing and food; they auction off a lamb,” Carolyn said. To this day, her daughter has a collection of toy lambs.
Carolyn recently contacted that Basque group and received scrapbook images of a young Ellie sitting with organizers.
Additionally, a local newspaper editor wrote columns about the 10-year-old’s progress. He wrote in one she was going to have her birthday on May 8, turning 11 in the hospital.
“She got 600 cards,” her mother said. Most arrived at the hospital or were forwarded from Caldwell. “Ellie was there a month following her transplant. It was a lot longer back then. Many of the cards said, ‘You don’t know me, but we heard about your transplant.’ ”
Ellie does remember that part. Some cards had a $1 bill.
“Mom put all the cards on the wall, then they took me to another room, and she’d put all the cards back up again,” she said. “I was rich back in 1970.”
She said both her parents held her up, but sometimes her mom doesn’t get the kudos she deserves.
“I also want to thank my mom. My dad gave me a kidney, but Mom was with me all the time day in and day out. She sat by my bed whenever I got sick and held my hand whenever I needed it. She is a very strong woman.”
Her health is mostly good, and the 2001 kidney transplant has held for nearly 20 years. “It’s been fine. My kidney works the best in the household.”
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