Blood sisters: giving the gift of life

Today, Enumclaw resident Linda Swenson is sick. Next week, barring anything unforeseen, she won’t be.

That’s because, on Monday, Swenson will be receiving a generous gift: a kidney from Chrissy O’Farrell, a cook at Charlie’s Cafe.

The two knew each other relatively well when O’Farrell agreed to an organ donation. But now they’re becoming closer than either could have imagined.

“We’re blood sisters now,” O’Farrell said.

Swenson has polycystic kidney disease. She’s known this since she was 21.

Her mother had been diagnosed with the genetic disorder in 1968. That meant each of her seven children had a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene. A medical study at the University of Washington confirmed it: four of the seven Swenson children had the beginnings of cysts forming in their kidneys.

“I have it, two of my sisters have it, and our brother has it,” Swenson said.

In its day-to-day functions of eating, sleeping and living, the human body builds up its fair share of waste products, which wind up in the blood. Those waste products make their way into the kidneys. In laymans terms, the kidneys separate waste products from blood, filter the blood back into circulation, and send waste on its way to be excreted. That is what healthy kidneys do; but PKD causes imperfections in the kidneys, specifically large fluid-filled cysts. Those cysts inhibit and eventually shut down the cleansing function of the kidneys. And without that function, blood waste can build to toxic levels. Cysts can take decades to grow to a size that will cause the kidneys to stop functioning, but once they do the consequences can be fast-acting.

Swenson’s cysts grew to that size more than three years ago, at age 59. She started traveling to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle three days a week for dialysis, a six-hour commitment including travel time. To be able to connect to the machine, she had an arteriovenous graft, a hard piece of plastic that feels out of place in her arm.

What she really needed was a new and healthy kidney. She obtained a spot on the notoriously long organ transplant waiting list, but her doctor recommended she start looking for a voluntary donor.

“I was in (Charlie’s Cafe) talking about how I was looking for a kidney,” Swenson said.

“I heard her from where I was in the back and I popped up and said ‘I’ll give you a kidney,’” O’Farrell said.

Swenson was skeptical at first; after all, she and O’Farrell were friends, but giving an organ is a serious step.

O’Farrell showed her commitment to the transplant during the next year and a half, going through a barrage of screening processes to make sure she was a healthy candidate, including an electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, CAT scan, multiple blood tests and multiple mixings of the two women’s blood in a laboratory setting. As it turns out, they were a good donation match: O’Farrell is an O blood type, the universal donor, and Swenson is AB, the universal recipient.

O’Farrell hasn’t wavered or doubted herself over the decision to donate an organ, she said.

“I just don’t see why not,” she said. “It’s not going to affect my life in a large way, but it will have such a profound affect on (Swenson’s). And her surgeon told me that by giving her a kidney, all the other people on the organ donation list will be bumped up a place. It’s cool that this type of thing can have such big effects.”

The only time O’Farrell was nervous, she said, was in August when Swenson’s sister Denise Barnhardt came out for support during the latter months of the pre-transplant process. But the two have hit it off, both said.

Barnhardt is one of the Swenson children who inherited the PKD gene. She’s already had her own transplant – also from a friend – and said she had a smooth recovery.

“Are you nervous?” Barnhardt asked O’Farrell.

“You know, no I’m not,” O’Farrell said. “I’m not nervous at all about the surgery.”

“I think you will be when the day comes,” Barnhardt said. “I know I was nervous. It’s hard not to be.”

During the run-up to Christmas, Charlie’s Cafe sold wreaths to raise money for O’Farrell’s recovery, when she won’t be able to work.

The laproscopic surgical process for removing O’Farrell’s kidney is less invasive than it would have been years ago. She won’t need to be opened up all the way, and her recovery will be quicker for it.

Swenson’s surgery will be more involved, she said, requiring doctors to spend several hours connecting the new kidney to the renal system and fastening it to the abdominal wall; the surgeons won’t be removing the old kidneys. But the new kidney will begin working as soon as it becomes a part of Swenson. From there, it will work on her behalf for 10 to 20 years, maybe longer.

“It makes me so happy to be able to add that kind of time to someone’s life,” O’Farrell said. “The doctor said the closest experience donors have is giving birth. It’s literally giving someone life.”

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