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Gift of life: Mom receives kidney from son

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Rochester Hills — Most people know Feb. 14 as Valentine’s Day. But today is also National Donor Day, and for Mary Pearsall — a kidney transplant recipient — that’s far more significant.

Late last May, her son Matthew was visiting from Nashville, Tenn., with his wife, Grace, and they were joined by Pearsall’s husband, Ed, daughter Allison Dery, 29, and her husband, Austin. After dinner, Matthew sprung the news on his mother, who had been on dialysis since March 2016 after suffering kidney failure.

Mary Pearsall said within three weeks of receiving a kidney from her son, Matt, last fall she was able to walk a mile. “I have much more energy; I feel more like myself,” she said.

“Matt told everyone he was going to be a donor,” Mary Pearsall said. “My husband and I were totally shocked. There was a lot of crying, asking if he was sure.”

Pearsall is continuing to recover from a successful five-hour kidney transplant performed five months ago at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. Her hero, Matthew, says he feels like he is back to normal.

As the nation marks Tuesday as “National Donor Day,” not as many people are as fortunate as Pearsall. In Michigan, more than 2,800 people were awaiting a kidney transplant on Feb. 1, according to the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, while more than 98,000 people waited on the national kidney transplant list.

“You only need one kidney,” Matthew Pearsall said, referring to the fact that people are born with two. “Kidneys are in more demand than any other organ. Chances are, you know someone in need. The only thing you leave behind when you die is the respect you earned while alive.”

Matt Pearsall and his wife, Gail

On average, about 13 people a day die nationwide awaiting a kidney transplant, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. That is because the waiting list is about 2.8 times longer than the supply of donor kidneys, according to a report from the United States Renal Data System.

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To cut the backlog, doctors and others are encouraging people to donate a kidney while they are alive instead of waiting to donate following their death.

“Live donors are our heroes,” said Dr. Dilip Samarapungavan, nephrologist and medical director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at Beaumont Health System. “They save lives from their selfless acts. The carefully tested donor carries minimal increased risk of kidney disease through their lifetime, and data shows that they outlive their counterparts in the general population.”

In Michigan, there were 197 living kidney donors last year compared with 298 deceased donors, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network.

From June 2015 to June 2016, Beaumont Hospital performed 79 kidney transplants — 24 from living donors, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.

Journey began in 2013

The trail to a kidney transplant started during a routine physical examination in 2013 when the doctor found reduced kidney function. The diagnosis was unexpected.

“I felt fine,” said Pearsall, an information technology manager who works for G Force Global Technologies Inc.

She described how a diagnosis of kidney failure works.

“Essentially you have reduced kidney function for a period of years,” she said. “There is no way to predict if it (kidney failure) will ultimately happen.”

Pearsall’s condition worsened in the fall of 2015.

“It was at that point that my nephrologist, Dr. Jeffrey Gold, suggested I get tested to see if I was a candidate for a transplant,” she said.

As the disease progressed, she landed in intensive care at Beaumont with complete kidney failure in March 2016. Within two days of being admitted to ICU, she began dialysis.

The average lifespan of a patient on dialysis is about five to 10 years, Samarapungavan said, adding that “many patients have lived well on dialysis for 20 or even 30 years.”

But Pearsall’s 31-year-old son Matthew didn’t want to take a chance. There was a plan in which Allison would be the back-up donor if something went wrong for Matthew.

“From the onset of her somewhat sudden renal failure, I slept on it for about 7-10 days, then informed my wife Grace that I wanted to get tested,” he said. “I then told my sister I had been tested and was a match in the middle of June to calm her nerves.

“I understood the risks and felt they were low. I had the full support of my wife,” said Matthew Pearsall, who works in sales as a manager at McKesson, a medical supply and equipment distributor. “I knew I would recover well given the data and, selfishly, I wanted my mother around longer than the expected five-year dialysis lifespan.”

He credits the “great support from my employer” with helping him prepare for the surgery.

Transplant ‘went very well’

The kidney transplant “went very well,” especially because the donor was in excellent health, Samarapungavan said.

When the donor is a relative with a close match, he said there is an opportunity for less immunosuppression/anti-rejection medication. “It reduces long-term risks and side effects,” Samarapungavan said.

As the anesthesia began to wear off, Pearsall said she started to feel better.

“By the third day I felt better than I had felt in two years,” she said, adding that she still felt fatigued.

Pearsall resumed walking shortly after the transplant.

“Within three weeks of the transplant I was able to walk about a mile,” she said. “I feel that I recovered quickly, although I still have some discomfort from the surgery. I have much more energy; I feel more like myself; often times during the kidney failure I was very quiet and content to not do much.”

Her son said he was on pain medications for seven days after the surgery.

“I had big plans to read a number of books I hadn’t previously had time for, but was very much mentally out of it for those seven days,” Matthew Pearsall said. “I took a total of eight business days off work and by about the 90-day period, or just about Christmas, I felt about 100 percent.”

Today, he said the only residual effect is a numbing feeling from the scars.

“I must always prevent dehydration, so I have a daily focus on water intake,” Matthew said. “Additionally, I must monitor my blood pressure annually and keep it low to prevent any undue pressure on my kidney.”

Mary Pearsall said she considers her son “the real hero, and my daughter, Allison, too, because she also offered to donate a kidney.” But she said there can be other heroes.

“First off, I would say that you need to become an organ donor on your driver’s license,” she said. “Donating an organ will save someone’s life — either during your lifetime as my son did or after death. Donating an organ can be a scary thing; but when someone close to you is in need, many people are willing to donate.

“The bottom line is, donating an organ will save someone’s life.”

slewis@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2296