Waltham woman reflects after landmark six-way kidney transplant, Waltham, Massachusetts
Wilson, 60, received a call from Massachusetts General Hospital on the eve of her transplant surgery telling her the operation was off, the Angel Flight that would carry her new kidney from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital to MGH in Boston grounded.
It was just another twist in an already complex procedure that had begun when Wilson and her daughter Jennifer McGuiggan, 33, became involved in a six-way kidney swap, one of the first of its kind, involving patients and donors at MGH, Johns Hopkins and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
“After all these disappointments,” said Wilson, “you can imagine the emotions, but I understood.”
Wilson said her son, Mark, who had flown down from Vancouver for his sister’s and mother’s surgeries, told her, “Ma, you just have to wait until the clouds part.”
“He made me laugh,” said Wilson.
The clouds parted a day later, and the following day, the six-way kidney swap back on.
Wilson, who has suffered from polycystic kidney disease since she was 35, had been on dialysis for five years. Her biological mother and brother both died of the disease. Her biological mother died when she was 11 and her brother died in 2005, around the time Wilson began dialysis as part of her own treatment.
Wilson left her job at Polaroid after 38 years because it would not have been possible for her to work while receiving the time-consuming dialysis treatments. The three-hour treatments were three times a week at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center.
“Dialysis was really hard for me,” said Wilson. “I was grateful that it was keeping me alive, but it was a major interruption in my life.”
Wilson said she felt lucky to be able to drive back and forth from treatments while many patients “were so sick,” to the point they were not eligible for donor lists.
“You have to be fairly healthy to be to be put on a list,” said Wilson, who was temporarily removed from donor lists the same year she started dialysis after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to receive radiation treatments.
Wilson was placed back on donor lists two years later.
While waiting for a kidney to become available, Wilson’s son and daughter approached her saying they wanted to be tested as viable candidates to donate a kidney to her.
“I said, ‘No, absolutely not. I am not taking a kidney from my kids,’ ” said Wilson.
McGuiggan got tested anyway, without Wilson’s knowledge. She wanted her mother to be around for her two sons. Wilson then agreed to go through more testing to see if McGuiggan’s kidney would be viable.
Wilson was supposed to receive her daughter’s kidney last year, but two weeks before the surgery, her doctors discovered Wilson had developed antibodies that would prevent her body from accepting the new organ.
The pair was placed on a swap list following the cancellation of the surgery.
In April, Johns Hopkins discovered McGuiggan was a blood match for a possible recipient at the Baltimore hospital.
“Of course we were disappointed at first when we didn’t match,” said McGuiggan, “but when this opportunity came around, that was even more of an incentive.”
Around the same time, Wilson matched a possible donor at Beth Israel and a six-way swap between recipients and donors at the three hospitals was set in motion.
The three recipients and three donors went through testing all summer, said Wilson.
“We thought it wasn’t going to be a go,” said Wilson, “but the blood continued to match.”
The surgeries were scheduled for September, said Wilson, and Angel Flights were coordinated to carry the live kidneys between Baltimore and Boston.
On Sept. 19, two days before the swap was scheduled for operating tables along the Atlantic coast, Wilson got a call. One person involved in the swap had an infection.
“There were times when I was very sad especially after all the delays, but I just got right back up on my feet again and prayed to God,” said Wilson.
Eventually the infection cleared up and the surgery was rescheduled for Oct. 7.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” said McGuiggan, “but worth it in the end.”
On Oct. 6, Wilson got the call from MGH that the transplant would have to wait another day because of weather in Baltimore. Wilson said she was almost sure the surgery would be canceled again
On Oct. 8, however, she and her daughter made it into operating rooms at Mass. General.
“I was excited for surgery,” said Wilson, “and nervous for my daughter.”
McGuiggan was the first of the six to undergo surgery. Her kidney was the first live kidney ever flown out of Mass. General, said Wilson.
Wilson and McGuiggan have both made steady recoveries.
Wilson said she woke up from the surgery on her late adoptive mother’s birthday.
Although the pair have no idea who the four others involved in the swap are, they hope to find out in a few weeks if the donors and recipients are willing to meet them.
“If they want to keep their anonymity, I will respect that,” said Wilson. “I am truly grateful for the donor. It really is remarkable when you think about it.”
“The good news is we got word from the transplant team that everyone is doing well,” she said.
McGuiggan said she would love to meet the recipient of her kidney. “That would finish it all up for me.”
Wilson said she hasn’t been able to drive for six weeks, can’t drink water from the tap, and is on 10 anti-rejection medications. She will take anti-rejection medications for the rest of her life.
Since the surgery, “I have heard from anyone I ever knew in my life,” said Wilson. She has cards taped all over the back of her front door and cards covering a side table in the living room.
“I keep them up because it is so inspiring to me to know that all these people are so happy for me,” she said.
McGuiggan said she is excited to go on a family vacation with her mother now that she is not tied down by the dialysis treatments.
Wilson said she can’t wait to spend more time with her grandsons.
“I have time now,” said Wilson.