Giving the gift of life ; Four women, including three sisters, on giving, receiving end of kidney transplants

As families and friends gather to exchange Christmas gifts, four women will reflect on a very special giving and receiving experience. Last spring Marge Jung Johnson of Perham, her younger sister Betty Jung Holthaus of St. Joseph, her older siste...

As families and friends gather to exchange Christmas gifts, four women will reflect on a very special giving and receiving experience.

Last spring Marge Jung Johnson of Perham, her younger sister Betty Jung Holthaus of St. Joseph, her older sister Rose Jung Guck of rural Perham, and Rose's former daughter-in-law Melanie Mounts Foss of rural Perham underwent kidney transplant surgeries.

Rose and Betty were diagnosed with diabetes in their early teens. One of the complications of the disease is kidney failure. Although her diabetes is tightly controlled, in 2000 Rose developed septicemia, a disease caused by toxic microorganisms in the bloodstream, leading to organ failure. Rose recovered, but her kidneys were permanently damaged.

When Marge was employed as a charge nurse in Detroit Lakes, she dealt with the organ and tissue donation center and also families of potential organ donors. As a self-described cheerleader for organ donation, Marge didn't hesitate to volunteer one of her healthy kidneys. She told her sisters, "I'll donate to the first one who has to go on dialysis." Rose began the procedure to take over some of the work of her failed kidneys in June of 2006. She went through dialysis, lasting four hours each time, three days a week. Dialysis was also in the near future for Betty.

Not knowing of Marge's offer of donation or Betty's situation, Melanie had met with her family and decided she would volunteer to be a donor for Rose. Through the testing and matching process, it was discovered that Marge was a match to Rose but not Betty. With an O positive blood type, Melanie matched both. The four women went through more testing. Rose says that for her the worst part of the whole process was all of the tests. "I think I must have had 75 tests!"


According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network the many tests for organ recipients are not only for matching purposes, but also to ensure they are healthy enough to have good long-term results after the transplant. For a potential donor, the first step is a simple blood test to identify blood type. After being selected as a donor other tests could include a physical evaluation, more blood tests, kidney function studies, a chest X-ray and EKG. The Fargo MeritCare transplant program also includes evaluations of emotional and psychological readiness to become a living organ donor.

Shortly after her birthday Rose received her new kidney from Marge on March 31, 2007 in transplant surgery performed at Fargo MeritCare. They both speak highly of the teams involved in the procedure and specifically the aftercare and follow-up by Mary Beth Miller, Transplant Coordinator. Marge says from the beginning she had no apprehension. "It's easy to do. I just felt like I had to do this."

Neither Rose nor Marge remember what they said to each other after the surgery. Rose says, "We were just glad to see each other and that we had both made it through."

Recovery time for Rose was just a few weeks; she was in the hospital for only six days. She now takes "four little pills twice a day" for anti-rejection therapy. The medications actually suppress the immune system to keep her body from rejecting her new kidney. She does need to be careful to avoid infection and to respond quickly if she notices one.

Less than a month later, Marge was at the University of Minnesota Medical Center for Betty's transplant surgery. On April 27, 2007 Melanie had one of her kidneys removed to be transplanted into Betty.

Melanie had been prepared to be a living kidney donor for someone who wasn't a blood relative "because it's the right thing to do." She was even willing to be placed on a national donor list if she didn't match to Rose, but then was told of Betty's need. Some people questioned Melanie's decision asking what if one of her kids would need it in the future. Her response was, "There's a need now. God will honor that and if something happens to my children later I have faith someone will step forward for them."

Just prior to their surgery, Betty and Melanie visited, laughed and renewed their friendship. Neither had fears about the transplant. Betty's surgical incision was much larger than the other's and has taken longer to heal, but she's had no complications and is thankful she was able to bypass dialysis. She refers to Melanie as a sweet gal saying it is awesome to give life to another person; to have them donate a part of their body. About the transplant experience she says, "All I know is it's a joyful, awesome feeling to know someone is there for you." Betty encourages people who are considering being a live organ donor not to hesitate. "It's the greatest gift you can give them." She stresses it doesn't have to be a family member.

Melanie is a 30-year Tuffy's employee and was back in her office on a limited basis just two weeks after the surgery. She doesn't even think about having only one kidney; it's functioning just fine. It is common for the one remaining kidney to become stronger and larger to compensate. Melanie hears from Betty that the donated kidney is also functioning quite well. Betty thinks of her when she has to get up in the middle of the night!


Melanie is a strong believer in the "Pay it Forward" ethic; to give without expecting anything in return. She encourages others to at least consider live organ donation. She understands that it's not something everyone can do, but at least they could check the possibility. She puts the special giving and receiving experience of the four of them in perspective, "It's not about me or Marge or even Betty or Rose. When you have the possibility to do something good for somebody else, not even a relative, then it's the right thing. What goes around, comes around - spread some good."

Both Marge and Melanie are willing to share their experiences with anyone who has been accepted as a live organ donor or who is considering donation.

Amid the holiday lights and gift-wrapped packages Marge, Rose, Melanie and Betty are each blessed with the gift of life.

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