By Jean Doran Matua, Editor
Back in the fall of 2011, custodian Pat Mertens and third-grade teacher Erin Durga both were new at Kimball Elementary School.
That was the final year of “Cubbie Land,” the in-school daycare center where Durga’s two children spent their school days. Worried about where her kids could go the next year, she learned that Pat’s wife Lynda did daycare, and they lived just a few miles apart. This began their friendship.
Durga’s children went to Lynda’s daycare, and soon were joined by another sibling. They called Pat “Papa” when they were little. Even after all of them were too old for daycare, they ask to visit “Papa” (now calling him “Pat”). Now that the two families live less than a half-mile apart, it’s even easier for the kids to go over to visit the Mertens.
Back in 2002, on one of his doctor visits, Pat’s doctor indicated that his kidney function was slightly elevated. After about 6-8 months of extra visits, he just stopped going.
Then in 2017 Pat was stricken with congestive heart failure. With all the tests given, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney failure: both kidneys were only functioning at 25%. He was automatically placed on a transplant list. He also started kidney dialysis, spending 3.5 hours three times a week. His insurance covered the dialysis and medications, at about $40,000 a month.
Today, Pat is in Stage 5 kidney failure; both kidneys are at 12% function, and a transplant is more urgently needed.
On Jan. 31 this year, students at Kimball Elementary School held a “Hats for Pat” day to help raise money for transportation expenses, getting to and from dialysis.
Shortly after that, Pat’s daughter Kayla posted on Facebook that her dad was in need of a kidney for transplant, from someone with type O blood.
“It’s gonna be me,” thought Durga. She discussed it with her husband who told her to “go for it.”
Durga started the paperwork to become a kidney donor, and then COVID-19 came along and paused everything for awhile. With no non-urgent doctor or lab visits, Durga took her own mouth swabs and mailed them to the donor coordinator at Fairview Hospital. The process took longer, but it still moved forward.
As it turned out, Durga was indeed a match, just as she had believed. She has type O+ blood, a universal donor. With healthy kidney function between 80 and 100, her score is 116. She recently had six doctor appointments – all in one day, and all by video conference.
Both Durga and Mertens learned last Thursday that the surgery will be done the afternoon of Friday, July 3. The date was moved up so that Durga can be fully recovered before the start of school in the fall – whatever form that ends up taking. [UPDATE: surgery has been moved up to 7:30 a.m. on July 3, and both Erin and Pat will be allowed one visitor at the hospital.]
At this point, both of them are cleared for surgery. Mertens continues his dialysis; something he will no longer need to do after the surgery. Both will arrive at the hospital – alone, as no visitors are allowed – the day before surgery for last-minute tests and clearance.
Both Erin and Pat will be put under anesthesia at the same time – it’s done that way so that no one can back out at the last minute. One of Erin’s kidneys will be harvested at the same time that Pat is prepared surgically to receive it.
Erin’s surgery will be a hybrid of laparoscopic and regular surgery. She will only have one larger incision through which they will remove one of her kidneys; everything else will be done laparoscopically, through 2 or 3 smaller incisions. She will be in the hospital for 3-4 days (again, no visitors), and her recovery time is expected to be two weeks. She won’t be able to lift anything over 10 pounds, though, for a full eight weeks after surgery. Following the donation, Erin is expected to have a kidney function at around 75. She is 38, and very healthy.
Pat’s surgery will be more involved. He doesn’t yet know all that will be involved except that the incision will be like a large, upside-down U, that they will not remove his low-functioning kidneys, but that they will add Erin’s kidney, in front. He will have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, but his kidney function after surgery should also be around 70-75. Pat will spend about 5-10 days in the hospital post-op. He, too, will be ready for school to start in the fall, especially since he is two months ahead of schedule with the busy summer maintenance work at the school (thanks to schools being closed since mid-March).
Erin’s children are now 7, 9 and 11. They know about the upcoming surgery, and that they will need to help mom like they did last year after her gall bladder surgery. The biggest change is that mom won’t be able to go camping with them this summer.
Pat’s children are grown, and the older of his seven grand-
children know about the surgery.
The families know each other well, and everyone is on board.
Pat was near tears expressing how much Erin’s “gift” means to him. Her response was simply, “I’m just happy it’s all working out.”
Pat’s insurance will cover both surgeries. Erin received a grant from the National Transplant Center for her extra expenses. Erin started a GoFundMe account for Pat’s extra expenses: search for “Caring for our Custodian” at GoFundMe.com.