ROCHESTER, Minn. — Linda Christopherson always said she had Tom Christopherson’s name written across her heart.
So when she saw the image of the kidney she would donate to her husband, she was delighted — but not surprised — to discover that the typical bean-shaped organ had a most unusual form: a heart.
“What are the chances?” the 58-year-old said. “It is just so miraculous.”
In a few days, Linda's kidney will be transplanted into Tom's body, one of about 130 kidney transplant procedures performed at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic so far this year.
Linda’s blood-filtering powerhouse is the last defense for Tom’s declining kidneys, which have been ravaged by a 25-year battle with igA nephropathy — a disease causing an antibody called immunoglobulin to build up in the kidney over time, leading to inflammation and plummeting kidney function.
In his decades living with the disease, Tom has grown weaker and weaker, giving up many of the hobbies that bring the 60-year-old joy, such as hunting and fishing. After years as an IBM programmer, he joined Linda in her business creating promotional buttons for clients, but has had to cut back there as well.
For a man who once ran marathons and spent days writing complicated programs, the lifestyle change is difficult to stomach.
He found a sense of peace in the discomfort, though.
“You actually have to do a lot of soul searching along the way,” Tom said. “With what I’m going through, I could either be a grumpy old man or be somewhat pleasant,” he said with a chuckle.
“You had great radical acceptance,” Linda chipped in.
There have been challenges at every turn. For one, Linda’s candidacy as a donor was initially rejected by Mayo’s transplant review team. But on Thursday, July 29, both of their bodies will be forever altered to create a better life together, filled with many of the activities they have long dreamt of doing.
Organ transplants in pandemic times
While the pandemic caused backlogs in many aspects of medical care, and Tom even had some of his appointments delayed, organ donations continued to rise.
In 2020, a decade-long increase in donations from the deceased continued, with 12,587 people giving one, or multiple, organs. Organs can come from living or deceased individuals. For those with failing kidneys, only one healthy organ is needed to replace the pair, making live-donor transplants more feasible.
At Mayo Clinic’s Rochester campus, surgeons performed 242 transplants in 2020, 60% of which were from living donors. Living-donor transplants are a specialty at Mayo Clinic, and typically result in fewer health complications than deceased-donor transplants. The pandemic didn’t slow transplants much from previous years, as 238 kidney transplants occurred in Rochester in 2019, down slightly from 261 the year before.
Nationwide, more than 100,000 people are on the organ transplant wait list, and more than 80% await a kidney. Seventeen people from that waiting list die each day. For Mayo Clinic Rochester, 1,079 people await organs, with 894 of them seeking a kidney.
In addition to testing someone’s blood type and antibodies to determine if they are a potential match, Mayo Clinic has a team that examines one’s readiness to undergo the procedure psychologically and mentally.
"Mayo Clinic recognizes and appreciates the generous gesture every interested donor makes in coming forward for an evaluation. The clinic has a standardized assessment process for potential donors that follows Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services guidelines. The assessment includes a thorough physical exam, imaging studies such as a CT or MRI, blood tests, psychological evaluation and other tests as deemed necessary by physicians," read a statement from a Mayo Clinic spokesperson.
A donor may be denied for a variety of reasons, including past alcohol or drug abuse, a medical condition, or advanced age.
The fight to donate
The Mayo Clinic donor advocacy team and collaborating transplant teams decided against allowing Linda to continue in the process based on a one-hour phone call with her, in which they discussed a childhood trauma she’d endured along with a DUI she’d received. She was initially pulled over for speeding, but her breath test registered above the legal limit.
When Linda received the call that she wouldn't be considered as a candidate to donate her kidney to Tom, she immediately knew she wouldn’t go down without a fight.
At this point, Linda didn’t even know if her kidney would be a match for Tom, but she wasn’t about to stop trying.
“I lost it,” Linda said. “I respect and understand that they’re doing their thing. But I basically said, ‘You got this wrong. You went and presented me with never meeting me, never looking me in the eyes, never seeing my body language. You’re having a one-hour phone call conversation. And you're going to decide that I can't donate a kidney to save my husband?’”
Tom held out a shred of hope that Linda could still be approved, though he understood the process was extremely selective.
“You want to know what I really thought?” Tom said, reflecting on when he received the news from his wife, “You don’t know Linda. She’s not going to be denied,” he said with an uproar of laughter.
She pushed back on the team’s decision, urging them to meet with her in person, or at the very least take her bloodwork. She had been preparing since spring 2020 for the possibility of being a donor, stripping her diet down to only fruits, vegetables and proteins and completely giving up alcohol. In the morning before work, she would stock up her “success bag” of these items, complete with her secret weapon mixture of cayenne pepper, lemon, maple syrup and water.
In the end, the team reversed their decision after several more meetings with her. Linda was allowed to proceed, and she was deemed healthy enough to be her husband’s donor. And in another stroke of luck, she had O+ blood, and her antibodies mixed well with Tom’s.
She was a match.
A life-giving love story
It’s no surprise that Linda’s kidney is shaped like a heart when she tells the love story she and her husband share.
The pair dated in high school — they both grew up in Hayward, Wis. — but broke up after a short time together. They went about two decades without talking, somehow never running into each other in their hometown. They both married other people.
Then, about 17 years ago, as both of their marriages were ending, Linda called Tom to say hello.
Five years later, they were married.
They look forward to days they can spend together as physical equals again, going camping, spending time in their backyard pool, or even traveling to Europe.
Most of all, Linda and Tom are eager for his brain fog to clear, a common symptom of kidney decline.
“Tom has just the most brilliant mind,” Linda said, tears streaming down her face. “He’s so intelligent. And it would just be so nice to have his brilliant mind — not that he hasn’t had it — but he talks about his brain fog and lack of concentration.”
Perhaps the greatest change for Tom will be remembering what it feels like to be healthy again. Like a frog boiling in water, he said, he’s slowly adjusted to years and years of decline. Before he started dialysis last month, his kidney function was at 8%.
“It’s a slow thing where you forget how you should feel,” he said. “All I know is I used to be able to do this, and now I can’t do this anymore.”
Linda will require less time in surgery at Mayo as well as a shorter recovery at The Gift of Life Transplant House. She’s expected to spend about two days at Mayo, and one week at the house, while Tom will likely stay four days at Mayo and four to six weeks at the house.
Sitting over morning coffee with Linda, his mind drifts to something that he hasn’t allowed himself to consider for a long time: a vibrant, and healthy future. And if all goes well in just a few days, his wife’s donation will allow for just that.
“I don’t even know how you could put into words how you feel. You just have the best wife in the world. Who else would do that?” he said, gazing into Linda’s eyes.
As he often does in serious moments, Tom immediately lightened the mood.
“There’s a lot of wives who would want their husbands to die,” he said with an uproar. Quieting down to look at Linda again, he said softly: “I picked a good girl there.”