By STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—The search was intense. Thirty-eight people, many from the Brandon area, offered to be donors, though none was deemed a suitable match. And the need kept worsening. By the time a suitable donor organ was found—after nearly four years on the transplant waiting list—Mei Mei’s kidneys were operating at only 5% capacity. She’d been fortunate to avoid dialysis to that point, but it was unclear how much longer her kidneys would hold out.
A year and change later, she’s leading an active life that many folks would find taxing. She’s the President of the Board of the Rutland County Humane Society, a role that requires not only managerial skills but also a willingness to roll up your sleeves and help care for the animals.
“I’ve got nine cats in my office right now,” laughed Mei Mei (pronounced “Mimi”) in a recent phone conversation.
Mei Mei had been suffering for years from polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder that causes fluid-filled sacs to grow on the kidneys, resulting in a loss of function over time. The cysts can start to affect other organs as well and the diseased kidneys can shut down completely.
“I was just tired. I had none of the other classic symptoms,” said Mei Mei. “But when I was 59, I was seeing a new doctor and they wanted to have some routine bloodwork done. A week before I was supposed to leave for Arizona, I found out I was having serious kidney issues. I went to Arizona and saw doctors at the Mayo Clinic there. They initially thought I’d have about 10 years before my kidneys really started to shut down, but I crashed after 4.”
In August of 2018, while on vacation, the cysts on Mei Mei’s kidneys burst. She ended up in the ER. Her kidneys were failing. She came home and did what she could to avoid dialysis.
“Dialysis is so damaging to the body,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have had such a successful transplant if I’d been through it.”
But the transplant was indeed a huge success. It was a 3-hour operation, during which the donor kidney was hooked up, so to speak, among Mei Mei’s other organs, including her two failing kidneys. She now has 3 kidneys, only one of which performs its intended function.
Mei Mei had her one-year checkup in August and got an unequivocal A+ from her doctor:
“My doctor is not jovial, but he came in smiling from ear to ear. ‘Your labs are fabulous!’ I almost fell out of my chair.”
Initially, Mei Mei was on a regimen of 3 different anti-rejection drugs and is now on only 1. A year ago, she was taking 14 pills twice a day; now she’s down to 4 pills twice a day. Her doctor is based at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in New Hampshire, one of the few transplant centers to customize anti-rejection regimens for their patients. Most others insist that transplant recipients follow a much more burdensome protocol even when not medically necessary.
“There wasn’t even really any pain,” she added. “I never took any painkillers stronger than Tylenol. It was one of the things that surprised me the most.”
But the transplant wasn’t 100% smooth sailing. It took some time for the donor kidney to “wake up,” she said. It wasn’t clear at first whether the issue was with the new organ or with Mei Mei’s own body. But the donor kidney had come from a 26-year-old man who had passed away and Mei Mei’s doctors were able to track down the recipient of his other kidney. It turned out that this other patient was having a similar experience.
But when the kidney did finally rouse from its slumber, it began performing extremely well. And yet Mei Mei was mostly housebound for the first 7 months after the operation, since her immune system was weak, and any infection could wipe her out. Added to the usual concerns was the continued prevalence of COVID at the time.
“A big outing was just riding in the car to the grocery store with [my husband] Bruce,” she laughed.
But throughout the process, even during the early days of the donor search, Mei Mei looked at the situation philosophically.
“Whatever’s meant to happen is going to happen,” she said.
But one day during the search period, as she drove home from a vacation, she thought it wise to alert the transplant center at Dartmouth that she was back home, since transplants must be done within 48 hours of an organ becoming available.
“It was a Monday night. I texted Dartmouth to tell them I was back home. Tuesday morning, I got a call. ‘We have your kidney, Mei Mei.’ If we’d stayed in Maine even an extra day, I wouldn’t have gotten this kidney.”
But luck has been on her side so far. The transplant has thrived and her kidney function is excellent.”
“I no longer have the disease that I had. I’m basically cured. I’m one of the very lucky ones.”
And that sense of luckiness extends to the many friends who offered up their own organs.
“So many people from Brandon got screened that the nurse said, ‘I want to meet this Mei Mei!’ I have wonderful friends.”
But the lesson Mei Mei wants others to learn from her experience is a bit more pragmatic:
“Sign your drivers license. Be a donor. It made a world of difference to me.”