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Huber gets new chance with second kidney transplant

When Rhonda Huber got her first one over 31 years ago, the average length span of a transplanted kidney was five-to-seven years.

Kind of like the "Energizer Bunny," Huber's replacement kidney kept going and going and going, but she came to realize it would eventually wear down. The Ellsworth resident, who's presently recovering from a second such transplant, wasn't looking forward to repeating the experience. Although still an ordeal, she found the process was easier this time.

"You know how it is when you're a kid, you think you're going to live forever," she said Thursday about her childhood approach to coping with the affects of a failing kidney. Born with urinary reflux, by age nine she was dealing with infections, becoming anemic and requiring blood transfusions. Between ages nine and 17, she was getting sicker, suffering nose bleeds, cramps in her fingers and legs, feeling nauseated and always tired.

Yet, as a teen she was determined to live a normal life, despite not really knowing what "normal" was like, she said. The second oldest in a family of five, she was the shortest, surrounded by taller siblings. She couldn't run with the others, but was a cheerleader in high school at her hometown of Boyceville, undeterred by the physical exertion that demanded. All the while, she had a suitcase packed in case she suddenly needed to travel to Eau Claire, where she doctored.

"Your kidneys do a lot," she said, explaining they regulate the acid base, the blood pressure and the amount of calcium and phosphorous in the bones.

In the fall of 1974, the then-17-year-old woke up one night unable to breathe, Huber said. Her doctor advised her parents, Avis and the late Manvel, to forego an ambulance and take her to Rochester, Minn., for medical care themselves.

"By the time I got there, I was fighting," she said they later told her about her uncontrolled condition. And specialists told them she would have died in another two hours without medical attention.

The patient spent the next eight months on a dialysis machine, which ran for six hours three times a week, she said. Because doctors weren't certain when she'd get a transplant, they eventually sent a portable machine home, where her father operated it for her.

Not until the third of three calls she received to get a transplant did it happen. The potential kidney donors are tested for the best match, she said, and the first wasn't completely satisfactory. The second was suitable, but she had a cold and fever at the time, so the transplant wasn't performed. All she's sure of about the donor of the kidney she ultimately got is it was a male and his kidney has served her for over three decades.

"In those days, you weren't encouraged to try to learn about the donor," she said.

Huber, who was in surgery for over six hours, said there were a lot of complications. Her potassium was high and her blood clotted on the kidney machine three separate times. Afterward, she stayed in the hospital for three weeks and lived in a small apartment for five months, having her blood checked daily.

Meantime, her family faced a considerable financial burden from all of her medical needs, though Medicare covered a portion, she said. They almost had to sell the farm they operated, supplemented by her dad's work in construction and her mother's job at Jerome Foods. On a brighter note, she was able to graduate with her high school class, allowed to be home for that weekend.

"I had enough credits," she said. "I'd had a tutor come to the house while I was on the dialysis machine."

She underwent several setbacks following the transplant, she said. She had a couple of grand mal seizures, foaming at the mouth and scaring her family, never learning the cause. She also had a bout with viral meningitis. She took anti-seizure medication for nearly 10 years and was immediately put on anti-rejection medication, making her more susceptible to infections.

As was common practice in '75, Huber had both of her kidneys plus her spleen and appendix removed before she received the transplant, she said. This year, when she was checked in preparation for the latest transplant, her doctor didn't initially understand why she has such a long scar. It was part of the earlier removal process, unlike today's version, requiring just small incisions.

After she and husband Jim married in 1982, they extensively researched with doctors whether she could have a baby. She said everyone was optimistic. Her pregnancy went fine, but the delivery was difficult, as scar tissue associated with the transplanted kidney interfered.

"I had to have an emergency C-section," she said. The couple had a son, Cody, now age 15, and decided he would be their only child.

Huber said her long-time lone kidney began failing around five years ago. Various medications were tried and it stabilized for awhile. However, it started deteriorating faster last fall; this March, the search for a donor got underway.

Her husband and three of her siblings were tested this spring, she said. While three of them matched, none of those were accepted. Each time, there was a three-to-four-week wait before the next could be scheduled and, each time, there was disappointment. Finally, a sister, Debbie, was approved to be the new donor.

On July 28, surgeries that had been set for early morning ended up being delayed until that afternoon, the recipient said. Her sister went first, coming out of a two-to-two-and-a-half hour surgery without problems, able to return to a job in Woodville within six weeks. Her own surgery lasted around three hours and, this time, she was hospitalized for four days, then stayed at a nearby "transplant house" for three weeks.

"It feels like it will do okay," she said of the kidney her sister has given her.

Huber chose a career based on her medical past, she said. She attended a two-year program at a community college in Rochester to be a registered nurse. She worked at St. Mary's Hospital in that city for a year, then was at the Dunn County Health Care Center in Menomonie for 10 years, caring for mostly geriatric and developmentally disabled people. Next, she was employed as a dialysis nurse in Red Wing for 13 years and, for the last four years, has been a nurse at Hudson Hospital, working in the medical/surgical departments and the emergency room.

Her co-workers in Hudson have held bake sales and a silent auction for the two-time kidney transplant patient, raising over $4,000 toward her medical expenses, she said. Grateful for their support, she also hopes everyone will consider being an organ donor.