Being a donor was what “for better or worse was all about”

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Glenn Wilson gave his kidney to his wife, Tina, instead of waiting for one from another donor.

After two weeks at Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, Tina Wilson is going back home to Minooka, Ill. What she’s taking with her is perhaps equally as important as what she and her husband, Glenn Wilson, are giving back.

What she is taking home is a healthy new kidney – and not just any kidney, but her husband’s. This places the Wilsons in a rare category of non-biologically related people capable of exchanging organs.

What they’re giving back is the chance for someone else to do the same thing.

Together, the Wilsons are creating a Web site to raise money to help other living donors afford the expenses related to the procedure, including hotel, flight and leave from work.

Onset of the disease

The Wilsons attribute their desire to help to their own blessings through a journey of medical peril, which Tina Wilson said started 11 surgeries ago when she was about 13 years old and began exhibiting symptoms of diabetes.

Years later, when Tina Wilson was pregnant with the first of her two daughters, she was officially diagnosed.

Because of a lack of understanding about the illness, and the fluctuating living situation caused by her husband’s military service, the disease was ignored even longer, which resulted in severely damaged blood vessels, Glenn Wilson said.

“Her diabetes was pretty much uncontrolled for about 17 years,” Glenn Wilson said. “Obviously, it’s our fault. We didn’t treat it the way we should.”

In 1997, Tina Wilson began taking insulin shots, and then a year later she started on the insulin pump, Glenn Wilson said. But the severity of her condition caused an adverse reaction to the treatment, and in the next two years, Tina Wilson’s sight began to drastically fade, Glenn Wilson said.

“It wasn’t the insulin pump’s fault,” he said. “It was that her body was damaged more than we knew.”

The next two years were filled with six laser treatments in each eye, and though she regained her sight, Tina Wilson described it as a terrifying experience.

“Anytime you face the fear of being blind, that’s difficult,” Tina Wilson said. “I think probably one of the scariest moments I’ve had is thinking that I’ll never be able to see my kids walk down the aisle or have grandkids and be able to actually physically see them.”

In 2000, the Wilsons learned that a pancreas transplant could cure the diabetes.

Glenn Wilson, of Minooka, Ill., donated his kidney to his wife, Tina, after being placed in a rare category of non-biologically related people capable of exchanging organs.

The next year, Tina Wilson received the surgery at Fairview that ridded her of the illness, though the harsh reality of the organ source – a dead donor – made total rejoice difficult.

“It’s something that sobers you,” Glenn Wilson said. “You’re so happy to get your miracle, but it sobers you to think others died.”

When Tina Wilson went in for the pancreas surgery, the doctors informed her that renal disease stemming from the diabetes was deteriorating her kidney activity.

Five years later, when the Wilsons went in for their five year postsurgery checkup, the doctor told them Tina’s kidneys were operating at only 30 percent, and they should begin looking for a donor as an alternative to the waiting list, Glenn Wilson said.

“A living donor is the only way to circumvent the list,” Glenn Wilson said.

A long wait

The waiting list for a kidney is currently occupied by 73,909 hopefuls nationally, which makes up slightly more than 75 percent of the total organ donor list, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network Web site.

Cathy Garvey, Fairview transplant coordinator, said this translates to about a five-year wait at Fairview, which can be too long for some.

“Sometimes patients don’t live five years,” Garvey said.

Beyond just bypassing the wait time, Garvey said the living donor option has other advantages to joining the waiting list.

“There’s better outcomes with living donors,” Garvey said. “Everything is timed when both donor and recipient are in as best shape as possible, the kidney is without blood flow for only a short period of time and you can transplant the patients before they become sicker.”

Tina Wilson initially turned to biological relatives for a donor, but they were all either too unhealthy or unwilling to help.

Although the chances of being a match were slim, Glenn Wilson decided to go in for the test – the result of which he calls no less than a miracle.

“I was like ‘wow,’ ” Glenn Wilson said. “It was kind of like winning the lottery.”

In the past 19 years, less than 25 percent of living organ donations at Fairview have come from nonbiological sources, according to the OPTN.

Thirteen percent of these came from spouses.

On Nov. 27, the Wilsons came to Fairview for the surgery.

Glenn Wilson said because of the success of the previous surgery, they didn’t consider any other hospitals.

Garvey said considering Fairview’s rich history of successful transplants -particularly with diabetic patients – it’s common for people to seek out Fairview.

“We have a long history of doing (transplants),” Garvey said. “With long experience, we’ve seen things occur more than once or twice.”

After a four-and-a-half hour surgery, Glenn Wilson woke up one kidney short and feeling surprisingly fine, he said.

It was there in recovery that Glenn Wilson said a holy vision inspired him to write an e-book about his experience and start the Web site to raise money for other living donors.

Not out of the woods yet

Tina Wilson was released from the hospital on Dec. 1, but was back after three days, following a checkup that showed signs that her body was rejecting the kidney.

Tina Wilson described the rejection as frustrating.

“I was more worried that if the organ totally fails how Glenn would handle it,” Tina Wilson said. “Because he gave so much and he didn’t have to.”

Tina Wilson said the day after re-entering the hospital she was able to regain her strength.

After a few days, the medicine the hospital gave her fought the rejection, and the organ adapted to her body.

On Tuesday, doctors told Tina Wilson she will be able to go home today.

She said one of the most important things she hopes to take from the experience is the physical and mental strength to be more independent.

For Glenn Wilson, being a donor was what “for better or worse is all about,” he said proudly.

“I tell my wife, ‘Now if you ever thought of divorcing me, you can’t,’ ” Glenn Wilson said. ” ‘Now you need me for spare parts.’ “