Sister gives sibling a kidney

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McMURRAY – Growing up, the four Lewis sisters were always close, but it wasn’t until the youngest, Geri Whalen, now 33, of Venetia, developed kidney disease that the four women formed a bond so tight that one sister, Dana Christner, decided to donate one of her kidneys to Whalen.


Whalen has battled diabetes since she was 9 years old, and following the birth of her third child in 2007, she developed kidney disease.


“When her kidneys began to fail, I told her, ‘Whenever you’re ready, let me know.’ I believe God gave us two kidneys and we only need one and the other is to share with somebody,” said Christner, who is seven years older than Whalen.


Oldest sister Sondra Hathaway, 41, of McMurray, said she was unable to donate a kidney and called Christner’s match a “Christmas miracle.”


“We just found out a few days before Christmas that Dana was a match,” Hathaway said.


Christner, of Salisbury, N.C, arrived in Pittsburgh two days before today’s scheduled transplant surgery at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh. Whalen needs a pancreas as well as a kidney, but as a living donor, Christner is only able to donate one of her kidneys. Once Whalen heals from the kidney transplant, she will be placed on the active wait list for a pancreas. The kidney disease is destroying her organs, but she was not on dialysis before the transplant.


Her husband, Adam Whalen, is anxiously waiting for his wife to return to normal health. During recovery, their three children, Eve, 9, Elle, 7, and Ian, 5, will be cared for by Hathaway and their paternal grandmother, Laurie Whalen. Before her health began to deteriorate, Whalen worked as a waitress at Pasta Too in Bethel Park.


In North Carolina, Christner said her in-laws, Jim and Pam Christner from Mt. Lebanon, will look after her three children. Her husband, Matt Christner, will be in Pittsburgh for the transplant.


Since Christner’s surgery as the donor will be a laparoscopic procedure, she hopes to return home Jan. 26, and return to work as the manager of a real estate office a few days later.


Whalen’s recovery will take more time, from four to six weeks.


“By Easter, I should be in good shape and by summer, I hope to have a new pancreas,” Whalen said.


Both will spend the initial days at Family House in Oakland, where Hathaway and the sisters’ mother, Susan Rump, will help with the recuperation.


Each of the siblings who are not directly involved in the transplant are keeping busy. Hathaway is preparing and planning meals for when Whalen and Christner return home. Sister Jennifer LaBella, 37, is organizing and planning a fundraiser at Del’s Bar near Bloomfield, where she works as a bartender, and oldest sibling and the only brother, Rob Lewis, 43, is a pastor in New Jersey and is in charge of prayers.


Christner said many people feel her donation is a selfless act. She believes the opposite is true.


“I’ve always been blessed with good health and it’s more hurtful to watch her hurt. I couldn’t believe I could lose her,” Christner said. “I’m actually taking the easy way out. I know I will hurt, but only temporarily, and I’ll have Geri the rest of my life. If I lost her, it would be a permanent pain, so this is not just for me, but her kids, and I love them like I love my own.”


Christner has three daughters and she hopes the act of one sister giving a kidney to another is something her daughter will always remember.


“I won’t always be around, but I can be an example on how to care for each other,” Christner said. “Give to each other and take care of each other and this is the way we do. Yes, Geri would have done the same for me.”


To help with expenses not covered by insurance, there will be a fundraiser beginning at 5 p.m. Jan. 24 at Del’s Bar and Ristorante, 4428 Liberty Ave. For a $10 charge, there will be wings and pizza appetizers and a pasta bar. There will also be a silent auction and drinks served by LaBella.


For more information on the fundraiser, call LaBella at 412-860-8805.


To make a donation in Whalen’s honor, visit www.transplants.org and select Find an NFT Patient. Contributions may also be sent to NFT Pennsylvania Transplant Fund, 5350 Poplar Ave., Suite 430, Memphis, TN 38119 and write “in honor of Geri Whalen” in the subject line.


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