The Perfect Match

Wife's Kidney Donation Gives Man New Lease on Life

Most people wouldn't be happy about a chronic disease. Not Glenn Billers.

"I love my polycystic kidneys," Glenn says. "They got me to where I am today."

He explains that a hockey accident led to the discovery of his polycystic kidney disease (PKD). He had to give up playing contact sports, so he turned to swimming, which earned him a college scholarship. After graduation, he began work at the company where he met his wife, Jackie – the person who would give him a lifesaving kidney.

Glenn had lived with polycystic kidney disease (PKD) his entire life. The disease is a genetic disorder that causes severe pain, fatigue and kidney failure. With PKD, multiple cysts grow in the kidneys. The cysts can slowly replace much of the kidney's own tissue, reducing function and leading to failure.

In the United States, about 600,000 people have PKD. It is the fourth-leading cause of kidney failure. But those with PKD can find relief through kidney transplantation.

Since 1968, Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center has been a leader in transplant surgery. Now in its 45th year, the program is among the top 10 percent of hospitals nationwide for volume of transplants, including kidneys.

The team at Aurora St. Luke's is well known for its transplant expertise. In 1999, Aurora physicians performed their first kidney transplant. The first living donor kidney transplant was performed in 2000 and in 2003, Aurora St. Luke's physicians performed Milwaukee's first laparoscopic kidney donation, a minimally invasive procedure that causes less pain, less scarring and faster recovery for the kidney donor. Almost 400 Aurora patients have received healthy new kidneys and have lived to enjoy the benefits – including Glenn Biller.

From Full Life to Kidney Failure

Organ failure can strike anytime, sometimes quite unexpectedly. Its onset might be acute – due to a sudden illness or infection – or a long-term, chronic condition. Glenn's condition was chronic, and while he had lived a full, active life for many years, his kidneys were beginning to fail.

For a person in normal, good health, kidney efficiency is 100 percent. In February 2012, Glenn's kidney efficiency was a mere 20 percent. In November 2012, after a cyst in his kidney burst, this number dropped to 14. He realized he needed a transplant – soon.

Glenn never thought he would need a transplant. "But you can't fight your genes," he notes. His struggling kidneys were the size of footballs – three times bigger than normal. It was time to find a new kidney.

Finding a Match

Glenn and Jackie BillerThe purpose of a kidney transplant is to give a healthy kidney to one whose kidneys are failing. While a person may have an eight-year life expectancy on dialysis – the artificial replacement for lost kidney function – this number can grow to 20 or more with a transplant.

Many people choose to donate organs upon their death. However, donations from deceased donors have not met the need for transplants. There is a long waitlist, and each year more than 5,000 people die awaiting a match. Currently, 355 Aurora patients are awaiting new healthy new kidneys.

Fortunately, a person can donate certain organs – such as a kidney – while he or she is still living. These people are called "living donors."

"Patients who receive a living donor kidney transplant have less chance of rejection and usually need less immune suppression after transplantation," notes Fadi Amin Hussein, MD, a nephrologist at Aurora Health Care. "Their transplants last much longer than deceased donors."

More than 50,000 people have donated kidneys since 1954, when the first successful living donor transplant took place. There are many benefits to living donations. It helps the person needing a kidney, and it shortens the deceased donor wait list. And all living donors are awarded "points" for their donation – so if they ever need a kidney later in life, they will be given priority on the deceased donor list.

Glen recalls being told, "Live donation is your best option."

After being referred to the Kidney Transplant Program at Aurora St. Luke's, Glenn met with a coordinator to discuss the process. He underwent tests to help determine if a transplant was the right course of treatment. He and his family also met with the transplant team to discuss all aspects of transplantation and how it would affect their lives.

Next, Glenn registered with the United Network of Organ Sharing, the national computerized list that matches transplant recipients with available organs. The wait time varies for each person. Some people die without ever finding a match.

Knowing that Glenn needed a kidney, many of Glenn's friends offered to be a match. "Lots of friends and family started calling in for donations," Glen recalls. "One at a time, they just got denied."

Then his wife, Jackie, was tested. "She made it past the phone interview, and then made it past the blood work, and then made it past some more tests," he says.

It was around Christmastime that they received an amazing gift: Jackie was the perfect match.

Giving the Gift of Life

Jackie BillerOn Feb. 7, 2013, both Billers were admitted to Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center for surgery. They had great confidence in their care team, which included surgeons, a nephrologist, nurses and more.

"From the minute I stepped my foot in the door, it's just been tremendously impressive," Glenn says. "I couldn't have asked for anything else."

Surgery at Aurora St. Luke's went well for both Glenn and Jackie. Jackie felt a little ill from anesthesia. Though Glenn stayed longer, Jackie was home within a few days. Today, both have a fully functioning kidney.

"I'm pretty sore, but I feel good," he said shortly after the surgery.

Glenn is now on the road to recovery. He takes anti-rejection drugs and has regular appointments with the specialists at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center. He said it will take at least six months to get back to normal, noting he is "not out of the water" yet. Currently, he is taking a break from work as his body adjusts to the new kidney.

Thanks to his transplant and the Aurora team that made it happen, Glenn has a new lease on life. But he is forever grateful for his special donor.

"You're giving a life. I don't know what better gift there is," he states.

"There's nothing to fear," Jackie says of her experience as a donor. "You're giving a gift that someone really needs."

"I'm lucky to have her," Glenn says.

April is National Donate Life Month. Every gift can change a life. Register today to be an organ, tissue or eye donor at the Donate Life Wisconsin website. To learn more about our award-winning heart, kidney, pancreas and liver transplant programs, visit our website.