Monday, June 24th, 2013
By Margie Wuebker
Woman's kidney comes from unexpected source
COLDWATER - Belinda Schwieterman feels like she has a future again after being involved in a kidney swap with 56 participants at 19 transplant centers across the country.
Schwieterman, who spent nearly 1 1/2 years on dialysis, initially thought a kidney would come from Beth May of Celina - a first cousin who is more like a sister.
May had offered to be the donor after Schwieterman had a bout with pneumonia that triggered her kidney failure.
"Our blood types matched perfectly," Schwieterman said. "However, my blood had a lot of antigens and hers did not. The lower the level the better, and my numbers were too high."
Doctors proposed six months of blood therapy to bring down the antigen levels but decided in July to also place her name on a transplant list.
"They told me the greatest chance for success would come from a live donor," Schwieterman said. "I needed a kidney because the peritoneal dialysis did not seem to be working as well as everyone thought."
Her hopes soared when she received word of a possible match to a donor who had died. However further testing eliminated the possibility.
Schwieterman learned the National Kidney Registry was in the process of putting together a kidney swap called Chain 221, initiated by Steven Mulroy, a county commissioner in Shelby County, Tenn., and a University of Memphis law professor. The chain eventually drew 28 kidney donors and 28 recipients from throughout the country.
"I did research before Belinda and I joined the chain," May said. "It seemed like the best way to go."
The hardest part for both women was waiting. Their plans nearly went awry on April 8 when Schwieterman underwent another round of tests at the Cleveland Clinic. The team of specialists worried about small strokes she had suffered and placed the transplant on hold.
"I told my doctor I would rather die getting a transplant than continue living the way I was," she said. "I must have built a pretty good case, because the call came the following day that the transplant was on and a perfect match had been located."
Schwieterman and May had their surgeries May 14 in Cleveland. May's kidney was en route to Utah for a young father in his 30s before Schwieterman headed to the operating room to receive the kidney of a 50-year-old New York woman.
"I heard the sound of a helicopter while waiting," Schwieterman said. "I knew it had to be Beth's kidney leaving or mine arriving."
The transplant team was amazed at her dramatic improvement. She looked and felt better immediately.
"I felt so good instead of so weak within hours of the surgery," she said. "It was like flipping a light switch."
May also rallied quickly and within a week both women, who are in their 50s, headed to their respective homes.
"Looking back the surgery was not as bad as I feared," May said. "The preparation was another matter entirely; we were checked from head to toe and everywhere in between."
Schwieterman has discovered new-found freedom. She abandoned her wheelchair in favor of a cane and no longer spends hours tethered to dialysis tubing.
She secretly hoped the surgery would help her vision problems, but that has not happened. She continues to adjust medication levels, and says taking anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life is a small price to pay for better health.
"I feel good, knowing someone benefitted from my kidney and that Belinda received the one she needed," May said. "A kidney swap proved to be the best possible option for Belinda and all the other recipients."
Schwieterman said the support of her husband Kevin, their children and May has been overwhelming. She laughingly admits she no longer needs a baby-sitter as in the past.
"Beth and a woman in New York not only gave me hope but a future," she said. "It may be only five, 10 or 15 years, but at least I have a future again."
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