Avera Medical Minute: Inside look at kidney donation, transplantation

Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 9:44 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - It is estimated that more than 100,000 Americans are waiting for news of a lifesaving kidney transplant.

Programs like the National Kidney Registry continue to help patients find viable donor matches and give them the chance for a successful transplant.

For one South Dakota family, kidney transplants have become a recurring theme.

If you live in the Pierre area, you might know Dr. Jenna Wickersham as a family medicine physician. But what you might not know is that she’s also the face of polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder she discovered when she was 17.

“There’s really no treatment or prevention for it other than controlling your blood pressure. So I’ve been on blood pressure medications since I was a teenager,” said Dr. Wickersham.

The disease traces back to Jenna’s grandmother — of her nine children, six had the condition, with five undergoing transplants.

“It’s just always kind of been a thing in our family. We joke about it. We’re a little bit cavalier about it,” said Jenna’s sister, Brooks Hughes.

“Her first three kids and the last three kids have polycystic kidney disease. The middle three don’t. So they joke that they were born for spare parts. And then I’m the first one of the next generation to have it,” said Dr. Wickersham.

“It’s a different kind of a kidney disease, where the kidneys actually keep growing gradually but at the same time are also being gradually damaged. She was getting to the point where not only are the kidneys getting big, but they’re not any better than what they were, and she was approaching dialysis,” said Dr. Sujit Sakpal, an Avera transplant surgeon.

“I was just tired and like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how long I can go on working every day and still functioning,’” said Dr. Wickersham.

Jenna’s time was running out, so her transplant team began looking for a match.

“So that same day, my husband and my sister Brooks went on and filled out the information,” said Dr. Wickersham.

Brooks’ kidney was a good match for another patient, and with that donation, she started a chain through the National Kidney Registry that brought a matching kidney back to Jenna.

“I feel like I got a two-for-one because that person got a kidney, and then Jenna got a kidney,” said Hughes.

“Doctors told me that there were like four or six surgeries going on the day of mine that were all related to her (Brooks) surgery in March. I feel like I was remarkably calm that day when I checked in, and I kind of knew what to expect — that they were going to do labs and an EKG, and the whole team was going to come visit me. Then we got downstairs, and they whisked me right in there,” said Dr. Wickersham.

“Once the organ is here, we actually assess the organ, and if everything’s good to go, that’s where the transplant starts. The first part of the operation is exposing vascular targets, which is an artery and the vein for us to implant the organ. That’s when we bring the organ from the back table and then implant these organs. Literally, it’s sewing an artery to an artery and a vein to a vein. As soon as we open up the arterial inflow, it just turns pink, and over time becomes nice and pink, and then the ureter starts making urine. It’s a joyous moment, and it’s a great feeling every time we do that for every patient. It’s just a great feeling,” said Dr. Sakpal.

“I feel like it was a little surreal at first, like I have somebody else’s kidney inside of me that’s functioning, and it’s just still hard to believe sometimes,” said Dr. Wickersham.

“When you see these patients not suffer anymore, have a viable organ transplant and how well they do, it couldn’t be more rewarding than that,” said Dr. Sakpal.

For more information on organ donation, visit avera.org/medicalminute.