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Home for the Holidays

Jacob Perala, a 10th grader in New York Mills, is the recent recipient of a kidney transplant from his aunt Teresa Theisen. Jacob made it home in time for Christmas and is recovering from the transplant.1 / 4
Jacob is pictured with aunt Teresa, mom Nikki Perala, dad Jason Perala, and little sister Avery.2 / 4
Jacob Perala will always have a special bond with Teresa Theisen after his aunt donated a kidney to Jacob. Both are home in New York Mills and recovering well from their respective surgeries.3 / 4
Jacob sits at the dining room table with dad Jason, mom Nikki, and aunt Teresa as they talk about how much community support the family received throughout Jacob's kidney transplant.4 / 4

This holiday season, 15-year-old Jacob Perala received the best gift he could ask for: a kidney.

Just a year ago, if you would have asked him, or his parents, about the need for a new kidney, they would have thought that was crazy. Jacob, up until this April, was just your average boy, attending high school and playing sports like any other kid in New York Mills.

Jacob's need for the transplant, and the incredible gift he received from his aunt Teresa Theisen, all began on April 24, 2009 with a visit to the hospital. Jacob, who is the oldest of Jason and Nikki Perala's five children, had been having migraine headaches for a little while.

Nikki brought her son to the hospital in Fargo to have the doctors investigate the cause of his increasingly frequent migraines, and was shocked when they informed her that they had to start her son on dialysis that very night.

"The night before that he played a baseball doubleheader," explains Jason, Jacob's dad. The family was stunned by Jacob's immediate hospitalization, and even more surprised the next day when doctors informed Jacob that he would need a kidney transplant.

Jacob was diagnosed with FSGS, or focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. His kidneys were operating at less than 5 percent, and had been for some time according to the doctors.

While waiting for a kidney to become available over the months that followed, his mom estimates that Jacob spent an average of 18 to 20 hours a week with dialysis. Then there were all the new restrictions to consider, such as an inability to swim or take a bath while on dialysis.

"I couldn't get hot at all," Jacob explains of the trying time before the transplant. It was critical that his blood pressure didn't rise. He was also put on a one liter of fluid restriction for each day, which he was forced to adhere to, even if he was thirsty.

With his life suddenly turned upside down by the FSGS diagnosis, Jacob's gratitude was enormous when he learned that his aunt, Jason's sister, had discovered she was a match for the needed transplant. "I was pretty excited to get it all over with," Jacob recalls.

On the other side of the transplant process was his aunt, Teresa, who found herself grappling with fear about the surgery, but also a much stronger desire to give whatever she could, even her own organ, for the sake of helping her nephew.

"When I signed up I knew I would do it if I was chosen," Teresa says of the resolve that helped her through the living donor transplant process. "I guess you don't know how much you have to give until you know how great the need is."

The surgery Teresa underwent on November 3 to donate her kidney was actually more invasive than the one required to give the kidney to Jacob. Teresa says she was thankful to learn that there was a whole team of people who would help prepare her for that process. They helped her to work through questions she says she wouldn't have even known to ask.

When it came time for the actual surgery, Teresa went into surgery a little before Jacob, and doctors made sure both of them were fully prepared for the transplant process. Just two days after the Nov. 3 surgery, Teresa was discharged from the hospital, and was back home by Nov. 7. The doctors required her to stay close to the hospital for a few days in case there were any complications with the surgery.

By the beginning of December, Jacob was also ready to go home. During his month of recovery time, Jacob and his family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House right next to the hospital in the Twin Cities. The family says staying at the Ronald McDonald House was one of the biggest blessings for them, providing a safe environment for Jacob to regain his strength after the transplant.

The surgery brought an already close-knit family even closer together, and solidified for the Perala family just how wonderful their hometown of New York Mills is. Since its creation, Jacob's website, which details his transplant story, has received over 7,000 visitors.

Then there are the countless cards, e-mails, phone calls, and gifts that the family received while in the hospital. "It was so great to have all the support," Jacob says with gratitude. One of the highlights for him was when some of his fellow students from New York Mills sent him a basket of snacks while he was in the hospital.

"The magnitude of it just blows my mind," says Jason Perala, thinking about the outpouring of community support, which also included a benefit in Jacob's name. "I don't know if you can put it in words even. All you can say is 'thank you.'"

Just a month and a half after his surgery, Jacob is already feeling much like his old self again. He has to take almost 30 pills a day right now, but his mom says the number of pills will gradually be cut back as his body continues to adjust to the new organ. One thing he will have to do is continue taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life.

Jacob is doing online school for the time being, but has plans to go back to public school and join his 10th grade classmates sometime in mid-January. He even would like to join the baseball team in the spring.

Teresa is also recovering well, and had her first day back at work on Monday. In the future, she should be healthy enough to do just about anything she wants, with a few unique restrictions: no boxing and no skydiving. A couple of restrictions Teresa says she will gladly respect.

About the U of M living donor kidney program

More than 70,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant in the United States. At University of Minnesota Medical Center and University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, the living donor kidney transplant program is helping to make more kidney transplants available to those who need them.

The Transplant Center is a world leader in living donor transplantation, and they have the most successful living donor program in the nation. Together with University of Minnesota physicians, they have performed more than 4,000 living donor transplants.

For more information about living kidney donation, call 612-625-5115 or 800-328-5465 for a confidential phone consultation.