A gift worth the sacrifice

Couple reflects on wife’s kidney donation 10 years later
February 17th, 2017

For 10 years, Bill Stout hasn’t been able to win an argument with his wife. But it’s been a small price to pay considering the life-giving kindness that his wife has shown him.

From the very beginning, Bill and Laura Stout’s 33-year marriage has been about giving. When they met, both had jobs giving back to the community — Laura at United Way and Bill at the American Red Cross.

Truth is, before Laura even agreed to a date, she stipulated that Bill donate blood. He didn’t hesitate. As Type 1 diabetic since the age of 17, Bill was used to needles.

After her husband, Bill Stout, began to suffer from kidney failure, Laura decided she’d donate one of her kidneys. The two recently celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary and Bill, 10 years with his new kidney. Photo courtesy of Bill Stout.

The two married in November 1983 and had two daughters. Bill kept his diabetes in check, but as they neared their 20th wedding anniversary, his health started to decline.

Type I diabetes affects only about 5 percent of people who have diabetes, and for these people, the body doesn’t produce insulin, the hormone secreted by the pancreas that is needed to turn glucose into energy.

There is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, but with proper treatment and management, people can live healthy lives.  Type 1diabetes, however, can affect major organs including the heart, blood vessels, eyes and kidneys. For Bill, it resulted in nephropathy — kidney damage.

The kidneys contain millions of tiny blood vessel clusters that filter waste from the blood. Diabetes can damage this system and lead to kidney failure or disease, which requires dialysis and/or a kidney transplant.

At 49 years old, despite his best effort to reduce these risks, Bill experienced symptoms of kidney damage and was put on dialysis, a life-supporting treatment in which a machine does the filtering job of the kidneys. His daughters, at the time, were teenagers.

“It’s grueling,” Bill said about dialysis. “It’s 16 to 18 hours a week — like a part-time job — which keeps you alive, but you don’t thrive.”

Bill and his family began to talk about a kidney transplant. Bill’s sister was willing to donate a kidney, and the family began talking to experts at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

At UCH, more than 1,000 people are on the waiting list for a donor kidney, according to transplant surgeon Dr. Thomas Bak. The average wait for a cadaver donation is five to seven years, but anyone can bring forward a live donor. UCH’s live donor program has grown significantly over the years; in 2016, the hospital reached the 1,000 living kidney donor transplants milestone. UCH participates in a nationwide kidney pairing program — a donation exchange program that allows willing donors to swap recipients so a match and donation is possible.

Live donors must go through a screening process that includes both physical and mental components. The donor must be healthy and have kidneys that are acceptable for transplant. The process also includes tests to reveal blood type compatibility and whether the recipient has any antibodies that may lead to possible rejection complications, Bak said.

Bill’s sister began the process of determining whether she could donate, but then the onset of health issues prevented her from donating. In the meantime, Laura, the woman who had built her marriage on a foundation of giving, learned that she was a close match.

“I can’t say I wanted to do it — no one wants to have surgery,” Laura said. “But I was seeing how he was living on dialysis. We had two kids, and I needed him around — not that half-life. So it wasn’t a hard decision.”

Every live donor is evaluated to make sure his or her consent if given freely. The individual works with social work teams from Transplant Service and an Independent Living Donor advocate to ensure their rights and interests are protected.

Laura also was informed of the risks.

“It’s an operation that the donor doesn’t need, so the donor’s safety is the most important factor,” Bak said. “We don’t want to transfer disease from one person to another. But based on research, we can tell donors now that those with only one kidney have the same, or very close to the same, risk of getting renal (kidney) disease as the general population.”

The transplant was successful, and the two shared their first night in the hospital together. Laura, laughing, recalled the nurse holding up her husband’s full urine bag and complimenting her for great kidney functions.

Laura spent four days in the hospital, though it took about a month for her to recover. Bill’s recovery took a bit longer, but eventually, he returned to his job as an adoption facilitator with Larimer County. He now works as a grants coordinator for UCHealth in northern Colorado.

As the couple recently approached their 10-year “transplantiversary,” the two reflected on what they had been through, their wedding vows, and how Type I diabetes had affected their lives.

“I hated being dependent on her,” Bill said. “But one thing that chronic illness does is make you realize that you are dependent on others, and you swallow your pride.”

Laura chimed in, “But it wasn’t just about him. I was doing it for the family. He got to see our girls (now 21 and 25) grow up, and I, too, got to enjoy it. I was just doing what I needed to do, and it was totally worth the sacrifice.”

“But be careful about accepting an organ from a spouse,” Bill concluded. “I never get to win arguments, ever.”