A special Valentine’s Day gift
Michael Kelly put his arm around his wife's waist and smiled his wide bright-eyed boyish grin.
He paused, still holding his arm around his wife, Keyta, before saying the words that might be hard for anyone to say -- let alone a man ready to accept one of the greatest gifts a person can give.
"How do you thank someone for giving you a kidney?" Michael said.
It was one of those illuminating moments when you realize how delicate is the balance between the ability to live a healthy normal life and a life marked by illness.
But Keyta's saucy comment quickly returned a light-hearted mood to the conversation as she told Michael how he best could thank her: "Oh, all you need to do is help with the dishes," she said laughing.
This Valentine's Day, if all goes as planned, Michael, who is 49, will wake up at the University of Kansas Medical Center with one of Keyta's kidneys working in his body. But even long before he opens his eyes and realizes where he is -- perhaps hours before that -- the transplanted kidney already will have begun filtering his blood.
It's an amazing thing, the human body which can be kept healthy or made ill by an organ smaller than your fist. In an interview last week, Michael said the transplant will mean that he will now be able to stop going to dialysis. For the past nine months he has undergone four-hour dialysis sessions three times a week at the medical center in Kansas City, Kan.
During hemodialysis, a patient's blood is pumped through a machine that filters the blood. Dialysis is not an easy route. A patient's blood pressure may drop to extremely low levels by the end of a dialysis session. And, because patients who have no kidney function cannot urinate, the toxins, and the fluids normally removed through urination, can build to dangerous levels before the next dialysis session.
But dialysis is also a blessing. Without it, a patient with kidney failure would be dead in two or three weeks.
Dialysis is the first hope. A transplant is the second.
"We're looking forward to it, but I'm worried about it at the same time," Michael said, locking eyes with Keyta who was seated beside him at the kitchen table of their rural Jarbalo home.
Keyta responded: "It's going to improve the quality of his life so much that we are looking forward to it."
The Kellys have three children, Rachel, 18, Kaitlyn, 17, and Garett, 15.
This won't be Michael's first experience with a new kidney. Michael, who has suffered from child onset diabetes most of his life, went into renal failure in 1994.
In October 1995 he received two cadaver kidneys and a pancreas. The pancreas stopped his diabetes. And until a year ago, the kidneys filtered his blood.
Michael, who is an attorney, has been unable to work since resuming dialysis in May.
When it was learned that the kidneys had failed and Michael needed another transplant, Keyta was one of many who volunteered.
Keyta, 44, is also an attorney, and works as the Leavenworth County counselor at large. The couple met when they were attending law school at Washburn University.
"He actually had six people willing to donate," Keyta said. "His sister Jackie offered first, and two cousins and a couple of friends volunteered."
But in the end, it was Keyta who would donate.
"I went through the tests," Keyta said. "I actually matched better than his sister did."
Keyta is glad her husband won't have to rely on a cadaver kidney this time.
"We know that the live donor is better because the wait is a lot shorter than if they go on a waiting list for the cadaverous donor," said Keyta. "Also, they have a better success rate with a live donor, so we thought that's the way we should go."
Since his 1995 transplant, Michael has taken immuno-suppressants to keep his body from rejecting the organs. He will have to continue taking these for the rest of his life.
Michael is aware that the medications that keep his body from rejecting the organs also impair his body's ability to fight diseases.
"The biggest risk is you don't have a strong immune system, so you have to watch your exposure to communicable diseases like the colds and flu," Michael said. "You wash your hands a lot."
Normally, the Kellys don't make a big deal out of celebrating Valentine's Day.
"We really don't observe it," Keyta said. "A card is usually them most that we do."
But this year's Feb. 14 will be a day the Kelly's won't forget.
The Valentine's Day transplant will begin on Feb. 13 when Michael checks in at the medical center. One thing that the whole surgery hinges on is the amount of scar tissue remaining from previous surgeries. Michael underwent surgery for removal of the transplanted kidneys in November. Normally only one kidney is transplanted, but because the cadaverous kidneys were small, both had been used. The surgery will begin on Feb. 14, the day living-donor transplants are scheduled.
"They will open him first to make sure that they can get the kidney in successfully," Keyta said.
If it's felt that the surgery can continue, Keyta's left kidney will be removed and transplanted into Michael.
Keyta's aware that her recovery won't be the easiest thing she's ever done.
"I guess it's pretty painful for a few days afterward," Keyta said. "Then it will heal up fine."
Her right kidney should grow a little to help take over for the one that's missing, she said.
During the surgery and recovery, family and friends will take over, staying at the home with the Kellys' children and continuing life as normal as possible. Because of their awareness of the importance of being organ donors, Kelly said she has encouraged everyone -- even their children -- to sign their organ donor cards.
And, now the family is also more aware of the importance of living donor transplants.
"I would hope that anybody would do it for their spouse or for their siblings or somebody," Keyta said. "It wasn't really a choice for us at all. It just seemed like the thing to do. He's been sick for a long time and we need to get him better so this is the way we're going to do it."