BURLINGTON — How far would you go to help a friend?
Jackie Bladow, a fifth grade teacher at Dyer Intermediate School in Burlington plans on donating one of her two healthy kidneys to her friend, Kathy Mullen from Salem Lakes in Kenosha County.
Mullen used to work with Bladow’s husband and she’s remained a family friend for years.
Still, Mullen did not expect, when she met up with the Bladows for lunch one day, that Bladow would offer to donate one of her kidneys to her.
“I was in shock. I didn’t know the right words to say. I still don’t know the right words to say,” said Mullen. “You don’t expect somebody to be a match and say, ‘I’ll donate.’”
“I told her she’s stuck with me at the hip forever,” Mullen said.
An unlikely match
Bladow first got the idea of becoming a living organ donor when her friend Stephanie Skrede’s daughter, Sophia, at 10 months old needed a liver transplant.
Because the liver can regenerate, surgeons can remove a section of a liver from a living person and both the donor and recipients’ livers will regrow.
Bladow put herself on the list of interested donors, but a match was found with a member of Skrede’s family, so Bladow was never tested. But she kept an eye out for another opportunity to be a living donor.
“Just the draw of knowing that I have the power to really help somebody and change the course of their life,” said Bladow. “And in the case of kidney donation give them their life back.”
Mullen receives dialysis, a process that removes excess water, solutes and toxins from the blood, three times a week. The process takes about three hours, which Mullen said, “tires you out.”
Because of this, Mullen has only been able to work two or three days a week. Bladow’s husband knew Mullen was sick and asked how she was doing. Mullen answered honestly that she was struggling and mentioned that she was on the deceased donor list.
“She pretty much had nobody in her immediate family who could help her,” said Bladow. “Just sitting at that lunch I said, ‘Well I’ll get tested.’”
Bladow had to undergo extensive testing to make sure her organ was a good match for Mullen and that she would not experience significant health risks.
Dr. Michael Zimmermann, a transplant surgeon at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, where Bladow and Mullen are scheduled to undergo their transplant, said that compatibility for kidney transplants are rare even among relatives.
“To not be related to the recipient is even more rare,” said Zimmermann.
Yet Bladow and Mullen were a match.
Zimmermann said he’s starting to see more unlikely matches come through his doors as more people become aware of living organ donation.
“With increasing awareness of donation, we hope that number continues to go up,” he said.
When Bladow found out they were a match, she left a stuffed elephant and a card at Mullen’s work place (which is also Bladow’s church). When Mullen got to the part on the card where it said they were a match, Bladow popped out of a closet to surprise her.
“It was pretty perfect,” she said. “Lots of fun.”
A big decision
Zimmermann said that like any other surgery, a kidney transplant poses risks, such as bleeding, pain and infection, to both the donor and the recipient.
For Mullen the decision to go through with the surgery was fairly easy.
“It would give me my life back,” said Mullen. “I’ll be able to work. I’ll be happy. I won’t be on dialysis three days a week.”
Mullen has been on the deceased donor list since November of last year. Zimmerman said people in need of kidneys can wait 5 to 7 years before receiving a kidney, depending on their blood type.
For Bladow, who is healthy, undertaking the surgery also presents a risk. Zimmermann said that since living organ donation is less common, it’s difficult to study. But some preliminary studies have found that renal failure among kidney donors is rare.
“It’s probably because people who donate kidneys are very healthy,” said Zimmermann.
Based on her medical history, the staff told Bladow that she had a .01 percent chance that her remaining kidney would fail.
But she said that ultimately the decision was grounded in her religion.
“For me it’s a matter of faith,” said Bladow. “I’m a Christian. That’s where I’m making the decision from — that God is in control because he put (Mullen) in my path right when she needed this kidney.”
Bladow and Mullen are scheduled to have their surgeries on Dec. 5.
Bladow chose that date so she would have time to recover during the holiday break. As part of the screening process, Bladow was introduced to other living donors who told her the recovery was similar to recovering from a cesarian section.
“I’m anticipating definitely laying low and just taking it easy and rehabbing a little bit at a time,” said Bladow.
In the meantime, she and Mullen have to stay as healthy as possible.
“Words can’t explain how excited and happy (I am that I’m) going to get a life back,” said Mullen. “I just can’t find the words enough to say thanks to Jackie.”
Bladow is raising funds to help offset the costs not covered by insurance for her and Mullen. A GoFundMe account has been set up and a bowling night fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 11 at Guttormsen Recreation Center, 5411 Green Bay Road in Kenosha.
For more information, visit https://tinyurl.com/y7jvhcar.