Tom Henderson spent years tied to a dialysis machine. With a new kidney from an organ donor, he can look forward to many more years untethered.
by The Iowa Clinic on Wednesday, June 12, 2019
The average wait time for a donated organ is between five and seven years in most states. In Iowa, it's just 12 to 18 months. Tom Henderson was lucky. His time on the national transplant waiting list was less than two months. But his journey for a solution to his kidney problems was much longer — and more difficult.
"I had complete kidney failure. I had about five percent use of my kidneys, and it went from there," Henderson says. "I had heard that Iowa was one of the shorter waiting lists. But it only took 41 days and I had a kidney. It shocked us."
An Atypical Path to a Kidney Transplant
Kidney failure is commonly caused by other health issues. Over time, the damage that other conditions have on the kidneys takes its toll, decreasing kidney function. For Henderson, it was high blood pressure.
Aside from a transplant, the only treatment for kidney failure is dialysis. It takes over the function of the kidneys, cleaning the blood to remove waste, leveling out blood pressure and keeping the bones strong. That's a job that needs to happen frequently in order to survive.
"I was on dialysis for three years starting in 2015. That was four times a week, three-and-a-half hours a day," Henderson says. Add in the drive from his home in Carson, Iowa, to the clinic in Council Bluffs and he was spending more than half his days, half the week getting dialysis. Even after getting home from treatment, he was "a little crabby" and too physically drained from dialysis to do much else.
But the treatments were necessary to keep him alive. And it was at dialysis where he first heard about kidney transplants and The Iowa Clinic.
"Some people at dialysis were talking about it and I picked up on it. We went from there," he says.
Henderson's first stop was actually closer to home though, in Omaha. But he wasn't accepted to their transplant waiting list because he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.
After 24 weeks of chemotherapy, Henderson went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a second opinion, hoping to get on their transplant list. They performed a biopsy of his kidney and it came back negative.
Henderson had been misdiagnosed. He had gone through chemotherapy for nothing. The silver lining was that he was now on the waiting list to receive a kidney.
The Wait for a Perfect Match
Henderson's 41-day wait for a kidney was short. His three-plus years living on dialysis before his transplant surgery is much more typical of a transplant patient.
The national transplant waiting list holds the medical information of every single patient awaiting an organ transplant of any kind in the United States. When an organ donor dies, information about their organs is input into the system to find a list of matching transplant candidates.
There are a lot of factors in finding the right match, which is why some people can get a match on day one on the list while others have to wait for years. For kidney patients, those factors include:
- Blood type
- Waiting time
- Immune system compatibility
- Medical urgency
- Body size
- Distance from donor hospital to patient hospital
- Survival benefit
- Pediatric status
On Day 41, the system found a match for Henderson.
"It was January 21. They called me at 3:30 in the morning," he recalls. "It was a person from out of state that died of head trauma. Sixty-eight years old, the right blood type."
Henderson and his wife left as soon as they got the news. They made the two-hour drive from Carson to the Iowa Methodist Transplant Center in downtown Des Moines, beating the donor kidney to the hospital. Doctors hooked him up to dialysis while he waited for the organ to arrive. Shortly after lunch, Gaurav Jain, MD, MRCS, a transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon at The Iowa Clinic, performed the kidney transplant.
"A Good-Looking Kidney"
After three long years of dialysis every other day, Henderson got his last treatment after kidney transplant surgery. The transplant was successful. His body and the kidney were adapting well.
Dr. Jain was quite impressed with the surgery and how Henderson responded. "He said it was a good-looking kidney that I got," Henderson recalls. "It went pretty smoothly. It started working right away. I didn't have any issues."
With fully-functioning kidneys, Henderson no longer needs dialysis. And he doesn't miss it. He's also able to enjoy foods that he couldn't eat before because they contained too much phosphorus for his body to process, like milk, ice cream and chocolate.
"I'm not tied down to dialysis so I can get out and do whatever I want to. I can eat most anything," he says. "I wouldn't even know how to thank the donor if I could. I feel so lucky, so fortunate."