GRAND FORKS — Julie Weighter, one of the world's first to survive a kidney transplant, continued defying convention until her death at age 72 on Feb. 5, 2021, in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Besides the kidney transplant when she was 15, the former Grand Forks, N.D., resident, the daughter of the late Edmund Weighter and Evelyn Ronkowski Weighter, was the first female security guard at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. She also earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and had a second kidney transplant in 2000.
“She was an incredibly strong person. She had a strong character,” said Steve Plumb, of Minneapolis, a longtime friend of Weighter and her husband, John.
Weighter, who was born Feb. 20, 1948, in Grand Forks, attended St. Mary’s School, where she was a cheerleader. During Weighter’s eighth-grade year in 1962, she became ill and was diagnosed with renal kidney disease, spending four-and-a-half months in Deaconess Hospital in Grand Forks, according to a newspaper story at the time.
With the help of a private teacher, Weighter graduated from junior high with her class. She went to school for half days her freshman year at St. James High School until February 1963, when she and her mother moved to Richmond, Va., where a kidney transplant surgery was performed.
In 1963, the Medical Hospital of Virginia was one of only two in the United States that performed kidney transplants, according to the story. Sen. Milton R. Young arranged for pilots from Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly Weighter and her mother to Richmond in April 1963.
“She was on the plane with her mother, a nurse and the pilots,” Plumb said. “Within hours after she got off the plane, she had the surgery.”
Weighter’s mother donated the kidney for the transplant, which was performed by Dr. David Hume, Plumb said. The surgery was funded with a national grant the hospital received.
Weighter' first cousin, Keith Ronkowski, of Grand Forks, remembers the reaction he had when he learned the news of the transplant.
“Wow, she’s going to be one of the first people in the United States to get a kidney transplant,” Ronkowski recalls thinking. "As a 9-year-old, I remember thinking that a kidney transplant was an absolute impossibility."
After the surgery, Weighter remained in Richmond and attended Cathedral Central High School while doctors monitored her progress. Weighter lived in a house across the street from the hospital with other children who had serious medical conditions; her mother stayed in a nearby apartment, Plumb said.
In June 1963, Weighter returned to Grand Forks, where she lived briefly until she moved to Minneapolis so she could be near a large hospital, Plumb said.
Weighter graduated from St. Anthony Padua High School in Minneapolis in 1967, then attended the University of Minnesota, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. While a student, Weighter worked at the Minnesota State Capitol from 1971 to 1973 as the first female security guard, Plumb said.
After her graduation from U of M, Weighter worked in the Hennepin County Economic Assistance Department for six years, then returned to the university, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in occupational therapy.
Over the next 28 years, Weighter worked in a variety of occupational therapy jobs, including one at Courage Kenney Research Institute in St. Paul. Weighter had a second kidney transplant at Hennepin County Medical Center 37 years after the first, in 2000. Her brother, Everett, donated a kidney for that transplant, Plumb said.
Though Becky Ronkowski, Keith's wife, never met Weighter, she felt connected to her because, she, too, had a kidney transplant. Her husband, who donated the kidney for her transplant, often talks about Julie and their shared medical issues, Becky Ronkowski said.
"He wishes that I would have met her so we could share kidney stories," she said.
"Never did I imagine it would come full circle and be something that would be part of my family with Becky," Keith Ronkowski said.
By the numbers
- Nearly 750,000 patients per year in the United States and an estimated 2 million patients worldwide are affected by kidney failure.
- Those who live with kidney failure are 1% of the U.S. Medicare population but account for 7% of the Medicare budget.
- More than 100,000 patients in the United States are on the kidney transplant list, but last year there were just over 21,000 donor organs available for transplant.
- The need for donor kidneys in the United States is rising, at 8% per year.
Source: 2018 figures from The Kidney Project at the University of California in San Francisco