A father’s gift

“It’s a joy of any parent to give anything you possibly can to your child,” says Gilbert Loewen of Peabody. Recently he was able to experience that joy of giving. On June 26, he gave his daughter, Vanessa, one of his kidneys.

“I was glad to be able to give something she needs, that will improve her life and health,” he adds.

“It’s pretty special,” says Vanessa, 17.

Father and daughter agree this experience has given them a wonderful opportunity to develop an unusually close father/daughter bond.

“I’ll always be at her side now,” Gilbert says with a laugh.

Even as an infant, Vanessa struggled with health issues. Doctors were never able to identify the source of the problem.

When Vanessa was 8, she went to the doctor for what her parents thought was strep throat. It turned out to be something much more serious.

Doctors discovered that the tube that allows waste to travel from the kidney to the bladder was blocked. As a result, high levels of toxins were present in Vanessa’s system.

They also discovered that Vanessa was born with only one kidney. And that kidney was seriously scarred.

It was at this point that the Loewen family knew a kidney transplant would eventually be necessary. Vanessa’s parents were both tested and found to be compatible donors.

For the next five years, though, Vanessa was able to control the situation through diet and medication. During this time, she had only 8 to 10 percent of her kidney function.

In 1996, Vanessa was required to begin dialysis. For eight hours every night, she was hooked up to a machine that purified her blood-a job normally performed by healthy kidneys.

“We like to do things as a family,” Gilbert says, “so when we would go skiing, we would pack up all the equipment to take with us. At the hotel, we’d carry the machine in with us.”

But the goal of transplant surgery was always in their minds. They decided summer 2000 would be an ideal time. Vanessa would be between her junior and senior years of high school. She would have one more year at home to ensure that everything was under control before heading to college and beyond.

After more tests earlier this summer, it was decided Gilbert would be the donor.

So on June 26, Gilbert underwent a four-hour surgery at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City to remove one of his kidneys. It took a little longer than normal because Gilbert’s kidney had two arteries for the doctors to deal with. Most people have only one.

It took surgeons three and one-half hours to transplant the kidney into Vanessa’s body.

“Both surgeries went well,” Gilbert says.

An infection delayed Gilbert’s recuperation a day, but he was released five days after the surgery. Vanessa remained in the hospital for 13 days.

“That’s normal,” Gilbert says. “They have to get the anti-rejection drugs under control. They have lots of side effects.”

Recovery wasn’t always easy. On the 12th day after surgery, Vanessa even questioned whether the transplant was a smart thing to do.

“This was more difficult than what she was used to,” Gilbert says. “It wasn’t familiar to her.”

“But now every day is better,” Vanessa adds. “It’s a lot more freeing now. I just have to pack my pills if I want to go somewhere. I don’t need my machine.”

The pills Vanessa refers to are her anti-rejection drugs, something she’ll have to take the rest of her life.

“We figured out that right now I’m taking about 45 pills each day,” she says.

Regular blood tests will also be part of Vanessa’s future to ensure the new kidney is functioning well.

Vanessa’s immune system is also fragile as a result of the transplant.

“You just stay away from people who are sick,” Gilbert says.

Until recently, if Vanessa left their home, she had to wear a mask to keep germs away. Five weeks following surgery, she was finally able to go to church.

Vanessa has ambitious plans for the future. She wants to attend college, followed by a career in the medical field.

“I’m not sure quite what right now,” she says. “I have to be careful with infectious diseases.”

She sees herself working on the mission field someday.

The future for Gilbert looks quite normal. His remaining kidney should gain about 20 percent capacity, so he’ll have about 70 percent kidney function.

“I’ll think about what I do before doing it now,” he says. “I only have one kidney left now.”

The Loewens say they have learned many things through their experience.

“The greatest thing that I’ve realized,” Gilbert says, “is that God is still in control of all things. He’s made it all possible, and he’s answered many prayers.”

Vanessa says a person finds out who real friends are because they come through for that person.

“You find the value, the special bond you have, even when they don’t understand it all,” she says.

“It’s been a neat experience,” Gilbert says. “We would have missed a lot of things without it-our family relationships, realizing the value of each other, and seeing that helping one another can be a blessing.”

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