Giving the gift of life: local man donates kidney to his cousin
She knew she didn’t feel good. Working at an around the clock temporary job in Colorado, she didn’t have the time or money to go to the doctor. They had no insurance since her husband had been laid off. Co-workers laughed and kept telling her she was pregnant, but she knew she wasn’t.
Jessica Wiegand endured the vomiting and headaches, pushing through until the job was finished and the Wiegands came home to Bridge City.
Waiting was a mistake.
That was approximately two years ago. When she finally sought medical help, it was too late. Wiegand or “Rebyn” as she is known to her family and friends was diagnosed with stage four kidney disease.
She was on dialysis three times a week; that is, until a little over a month ago.
On March 11, Keith Slaughter, 42, shared a little piece of himself. He gifted her with a kidney. “We found out last October that my cousin was a perfect match,” said Wiegand. Slaughter is Wiegand’s first cousin. Their fathers are brothers.
Most people have to wait a long time to receive a kidney, but Wiegand was lucky and had several offers from eligible friends and family members.
Slaughter told Wiegand that he felt God wanted him to do it. He and his daughter were both tested for compatibility.
As it turns out, Slaughter’s kidneys are larger than normal. It was like giving her a kidney and a half. They knew from tests before hand that it was larger, but didn’t know how much larger until they had removed the kidney. Slaughter didn’t find out until after the surgery.
Wiegand had spent the last year preparing for surgery. Doctors had told her she had to lose 100 pounds before she would be considered for transplant. She accomplished the weight loss and was compliant with each of the requirements set before her.
The surgery had originally been scheduled for Jan. 7, but she required a surgery in December and complications forced another surgery in January. The transplant was pushed back to give her time to heal. “Finally they gave us the date of March 11 and said everything was good,” said Wiegand.
The night before the surgery, she was afraid there was a problem when the transplant coordinator called about nine o’clock. “She said she needed to talk to Keith and then she would call me back. I thought something was probably wrong.” Rebyn said, “I waited about 30 minutes and I didn’t hear from him or her, so I was kinda panicked.
“They told him he needed to have a CT scan of his chest, that when we had went for our chest x-rays on Tuesday, they saw a spot and so they just wanted to verify that it was nothing. Lilly, the coordinator, said there was a one percent chance that it was anything other than a shadow.”
The next morning the cousins were put in the same room. Rebyn visited with friends and family while Keith was taken for a CT Scan.
“I guess it was about 7:45 and they came in and said they were there to get [Keith for surgery]. Right as he was going down the hall the coordinator called me and said ‘I just wanted to let ya’ll know that his x-ray is clear and ya’ll are both cleared for surgery.’
“About 45 minutes later, they came and got me.”
While in holding, Wiegand had to resign all her paperwork because her surgeon had changed. She said it was to be a surgeon she had only seen a couple of times as a patient.
Dr. Van Buren, who was originally scheduled to perform the transplant, has done over 4,000 transplants over a period 34 years. He was called in on a liver transplant the night before.
Dr. Van Buren came through in the end. He came in to do the surgery on his day off.
“He said he thought I would do real good because I had a positive attitude from the beginning, even when they told me the bad news that I couldn’t have the surgery that I would have to wait, I always had a positive attitude. He felt like it was going to go really smooth and he was excited about being a part of it.
“I was in the [operating room] and I kept asking about Keith. They were telling me everything was going fine with his surgery. They kept checking on him, because they wouldn’t put me under until they had the kidney out and they could look at it. I started to get really nervous. The anesthesiologist told me he was going to give me some fresh air. He put the oxygen mask on me and that was the last thing I remember.
“I woke up about 4:45 in ICU that afternoon. I was in terrible pain. They were scanning my abdomen, my kidney for flow, at that point. I asked for pain medicine and the nurse got me something for pain. Then I kinda went back out and when I woke up again some of my family was there.
“My two sisters-in-law were there and I asked them, ‘Does the kidney work?’ Both of them said, ‘They’re telling us yes, that it was working on the operating table.’ I just did a thumbs up. I asked about Keith and fell back asleep.
“Relatives had been receiving updates on the surgery while in the waiting room. The surgeon that actually removed the kidney from my cousin told them it was the largest kidney he’s ever seen. It was like delivering a baby. He said instead of two inches he had to cut four inches just to get it out.”
They told her he was in recovery, doing well, but he was in a lot of pain.
“At 11:45 I woke up wide awake,” said Wiegand. She was denied a request for something to drink and told she could not get out of bed.
“I told [the nurse] if she could get me a rag, I thought that I could get out of bed and clean that whole hospital.”
That comment made the nurse laugh.
She was told Keith had a reaction to the pain medication, but he was still doing well.
“I stayed up until 2:45 in the morning on Facebook. I was live chatting with all my friends and posting on everybody’s page. Everybody asked, ‘Is it really you?’ I said, ‘It’s really me, I’m wide awake.’
“Ever since I’ve been sick when I try to take a deep breath in, I have a lot of pain, like in my chest and in my rib cage. They had always told me that was a lot of fluid, because my body couldn’t secrete my fluid, it would just stick in that area.
“When the nurse went to set me up in the bed, I took a deep breath like I usually do and the air came right out. It was like the first full fresh breath of air I’ve had in years. I knew then that everything was going to be okay.”
She was concerned because Keith had a low grade fever.
“I was just praying for him. I was worried about him, mainly, more than anything because I didn’t want for him to make that sacrifice [and have complications]. He just stepped right up to the plate and offered his kidney, you know. He didn’t have to do that. He has a wife and family. He never even thought anything would happen to him. He was just ready to do it from day one. He just said that God told him to do it. He just trusted that God would take care of him and I wanted that to be the case.”
Every day he got better and better.
They were released on the following Thursday. Rebyn went to Hospitality House which has apartments for transplant recipients to stay in while they continue doctors’ visits in Houston.
Keith went home to recover.
After their one month check-up, they will only have to go back once a month.
“I take about 26 pills a day,” said Wiegand. Getting her red blood count up is the only issue now, but that may take time. Injections can be used to bring the count up if necessary.
After three weeks, Wiegand’s creatin levels were only .2 from having one hundred percent kidney function with just one kidney. “Dr. Van Buren, he’s my surgeon, says it was a total success.”
Keith is recovering well.
“All his blood work was exemplary from day one. It was like his body did not even notice what happened.”
He returned to work at Total Petrochemical after three weeks. He says he has recovered enough that it doesn’t feel like he did anything and is back to normal.
Even if he knew ahead of time the level of pain he would have been in after the surgery, Straughter says he still would have gone through with it.
“I am in awe of him, that he would make that sacrifice and not at all consider himself,” she said. “For him to call and say I feel like I need to do this. I hardly have words, I’m amazed by it.”
Recently, there was a family celebration at the Wiegands. It was the first time that Rebyn was allowed to be around all of her family.
“I know God has taken care of me from day one to today,” said Wiegand.
She plans on writing a book about the experience to help others learn how to navigate their own medical path to transplantation.