This is not the type of writing I normally do here. But this was a story I thought needed to be told, and asked my friends Kathy and Mary to sit down with me a month or so ago and tell it. A modified version of this article appears in this week’s Grant County Review.
Kathy Madsen knows how to celebrate a birthday.
On her birthday next week, Kathy will tie a bright red ribbon around her name and throw it into a five-state pool to match up with someone who needs a kidney.
That’s some party favor, let me tell you.
Last spring, Kathy was on her back porch in her pajamas drinking coffee when her friend Vangie called. Vern and Vangie Heupel’s daughter Mary, living in Sioux Falls, had just been released from the hospital after and ICU stay due to kidney failure.
Kathy reassured her friend that she would do everything she could, thinking that she might drop off a box of chocolates or offer to mow the lawn. But before she knew what she was saying, she heard herself tell Vangie, “I’ll test for you. If I can give Mary a kidney, I want to give.”
Mary Heupel was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of four. She has managed the illness successfully with insulin and diet and doctors have assured her there was nothing more she could have done. But now in her early forties, her kidneys have been through too much.
Shortly after Easter, Mary became ill at work, and went to acute care thinking she had the flu. She was sent immediately to the emergency room and admitted to ICU with her kidneys functioning at only eight percent. After a week, she was sent home to think about her options. By the time she returned the her doctor the next week, she was told she would have no option but dialysis.
Mary is certified to perform her own dialysis at home, a four-hour process she undergoes three times a day. Because of the constraints of the procedure, she has become virtually homebound, leaving only for work each day and church on the weekends. Her mother has moved in to care for her and provide transportation, as she is unable to drive herself given her condition. Her dad, Vern, splits time between Sioux Falls and the couple’s home in Milbank, helping out wherever he can while taking care of responsibilities at home.
She now faces a decision: a kidney transplant or continue dialysis for the rest of her life.
Kathy and Vangie met a few years ago. Kathy had been visiting her son in Oklahoma and attended church with him. When she returned home, she sensed the desire to be involved in a church again. She drove to ValleyBaptist Church in Milbank one Sunday morning. She sat in her car and looked at the building, rethinking her decision. “Do you know how many doors there are in that church? God, I can’t do this.” she said.
She was about to turn around and go back home, when Vangie appeared at her car window and invited her inside. They became fast friends and now participate in Bible study and garden club together and often sit together in church.
Realizing the magnitude of what she’d promised to do, Kathy called her husband, Greg, hoping to persuade him to along with her plans to give up a kidney for Mary’s sake.
“Remember I said I wanted to do something for Vangie?”
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“I want to test for them,” she said.
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
“If I’m a match, I want to give a kidney.”
What no one knew was whether Kathy would be a match for Mary. As things turned out, she was not, and for a while it appeared as though Mary would have no donor options. Then the hospital staff introduced them to a paired exchange program.
Both Mary and Kathy would have to go through an extensive testing process to ensure that both were eligible candidates for a transplant — Mary to receive a kidney and Kathy to give one. Once they were both cleared, they would be entered into the draw to be matched with another donor/recipient pair in a pool of patients from South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Once a match is made, the surgeries will be scheduled and all four will take place the same day. “It’s just like Grey’s Anatomy,” Kathy says. “They’ll put it in a little red box and run down the hallway and put it on a jet place. And then it’s there.”
“Mary was dealt this card because she is a very strong person. I think Mary is so brave it’s not even funny,” Kathy said. “What she’s going through now, I don’t know if I could do it. She is an inspiration to so many people.”
Mary credits her faith for giving her the strength. “Whenever I have a doubt or even an inkling of something crosses my mind, I just pray and it turns me around. I have a lot of faith in God. I always have.”
She said that what Kathy is doing means everything to her. “She has a heart of gold. I’ve never met anyone before who would say, ‘Yes, I’ll give you a kidney,’ right out of the blue.”
As for Kathy, she just wants Mary to live a good, long life. “We’re blessed with two kidneys and we can share one with someone who needs it. Why not? Why not do it and save someone’s life? I want Mary to sit on the porch with me and drink coffee and throw rocks at the rabbits. I just want her to have a happy life. ”
The tests have taken several months, and the process has been delayed at times due to other medical setbacks. In the meantime, the bond between the women has grown.
On one occasion when the three had gone to the hospital together to pick up some testing items, a receptionist asked Kathy for her birthdate to complete some paperwork. Kathy told her the date, October 29.
Mary turned to her mother and exclaimed, “Mom! That’s Shelly’s birthday!”
The Heupels lost Shelly, Mary’s older sister, to cancer in 1983 when she was just 17. The realization that the two shared a birthday seemed to cement their resolve to complete this process together.
In keeping with the way these lives have intertwined, it seems that Shelly has found a way through Kathy to give her own birthday gift to Mary.
Looking at Kathy, Vangie said, “She is our daughter.”
Kathy, smiling, replied, “Officially.”