Paired kidney exchange program gives woman chance for normal life

February 27, 2013
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Marcia Opp of North Strabane Township is recovering from a kidney transplant she received in December from a living donor. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Marcia Opp of North Strabane Township sips a cup of coffee as she enjoys being home following a kidney transplant in December. Order a Print

Marcia Opp of North Strabane Township has never met the 27-year-old medical student who she calls her “saint from St. Louis.”

But Opp and the Missouri man are bound by a shared experience: On Dec. 20, a year to the day after Opp started dialysis because of sudden kidney failure, he donated a kidney to Opp.

“I’m just so thankful. I’ve cried so many tears of thankfulness. I’m so excited to have a kidney that works,” said Opp, owner of the Springhouse Country Market and Restaurant in Eighty Four. Opp received her kidney at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore as part of the Paired Kidney Exchange program, where a living kidney donor who is incompatible with the recipient exchanges kidneys with another donor/recipient pair.

Opp said that five people were involved in her kidney swap. She received the kidney from the medical student; Opp’s pairing partner, Sarah Batley – a friend of Opp’s sister, Tee Kelly of Baltimore – donated her kidney to a girl in St. Louis; and the girl’s pairing partner donated her kidney to another person awaiting a transplant.

Opp’s ordeal began in December 2011. Several people attending the Springhouse’s Breakfast with Santa noticed she “looked yellow.” In the weeks leading up to the annual event, Opp, a workaholic, found herself extremely thirsty and tired, but she chalked it up to her age and her busy schedule.

But a trip to the doctor confirmed her condition was serious: Her kidneys were failing.

Opp was shocked. She had no family history of kidney disease and she said she didn’t feel seriously ill.

“I was waking up thirsty every morning, and I couldn’t wait to get up and drink three large glasses of ice water,” said Opp. “I remember I got really tired vacuuming and I thought, ‘This must be what it’s like to be 48.’”

Opp had no idea how sick she was, said her surgeon, Dr. Stephen Bartlett, chairman of the department of surgery at University of Maryland Medical Center.

“What happens is that people who develop kidney disease over a long, slow period of time, as they lose energy, they don’t perceive a change because it is ongoing. After they get the transplant, they say, “Gosh, I didn’t know I could feel so good again.’ They didn’t realize how badly they felt or the symptoms they were ignoring. In Marcia’s case, she got to a point where she was pretty sick, quite ill from her renal failure,” said Bartlett.

She started dialysis for five hours, three days a week, with each round leaving her sick and weak until bedtime, and because family and friends were not a match for a kidney transplant, Opp began the lengthy process to get on an organ transplant list.

Last August, Opp received a telephone call from doctors at UMMC that a kidney was available, but it was not an ideal match and Bartlett advised her to wait for a more suitable one.

“If we put just any kidney in her, she might react to that and have hyperacute rejection, where the kidney would reject immediately,” said Bartlett, concerned that the antigens she had built up in her body from transfusions would attack the new kidney. “We had to carefully identify the right donor, and that was quite an effort to find someone she didn’t react to. Fortunately, we did.”

The day before Thanksgiving, UMMC called her again, this time with good news: the kidney, from a live donor, was a match.

Opp’s husband, Donald, accompanied her to Baltimore for the surgery while their two sons, Nathan, 11, and, Donny, 12, stayed with Opp’s sister.

On the morning of Dec. 20, Opp’s donor underwent surgery to remove his kidney. Opp said his first question was, “How is my kidney working for my transplant?” At 9 p.m., the kidney was transplanted during a four-hour surgery.

Now, Opp is recovering and looking forward to returning to the Springhouse, where employees and customers provided support and encouragement over the past months. She takes anti-rejection drugs and other medications, so doctors have advised her to stay away from the country store to avoid contracting any illnesses.

“I’m dying to get back to The Springhouse. We just had our 37th anniversary and I wanted to be there, but this year I have to take care of the kidney,” said Opp. “Customers said they’ve been praying for me and I told my mom I’m shocked that people have sent cards and written on Facebook. The girls (at the Springhouse) said everybody is asking about me. It’s been an unbelievable outpouring of love.”

On The Springhouse website, Opp explains her medical journey in her blog, Marcia’s Moosings.

Doctors told Opp they aren’t sure what caused her kidney failure, but said her kidneys were badly scarred.

She hasn’t met or talked to her donor because of confidentiality rules, but said she would tell him, “Thank you for letting the Lord use you to save me.”

Opp, perpetually cheerful and optimistic, chooses to find the positive in her medical crisis.

“It’s been great for our boys to learn to reach out and take care of other people, get outside themselves,” said Opp, noting how they helped whenever they could. “Nathan said if he had a superpower, he’d want to turn back time and make sure I didn’t have kidney disease.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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