Ask Eileen Krynicki how she spends her days, and she'll give you a rapid-fire list of her activities at the senior community where she lives in New Jersey.
They include the Welcome Committee, Cooking Club, Ping-Pong, shuffle board, the Irish American Club and the Italian American club. She also acts in the Players Club. As if that weren't enough, she's a Strutter in the Happy Days String Band.
"I love my life," the 70-year-old says. "I'm the happiest person you're ever going to see."
From Dialysis to Donation
Looking back about 20 years, Eileen's enthusiasm for life was put to the test. Eileen learned her kidneys were failing, and she would need a transplant.
While she isn't sure what caused her kidney failure, she thinks she was exposed to a virus while running a home day care that resulted in focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS). The disease, a leading cause of kidney failure, produces scar tissue on the parts of the kidney that filter waste from the blood.
Eileen needed to go on dialysis, a process that would help purify her blood as a substitute for the normal function of her kidney. The dialysis lasted three and a half hours, three times a week.
"The dialysis was the worst. It was hard," Eileen said. "I would be praying to God. 'Let me get through with this.'"
Eileen put her name on the transplant wait list for a kidney but knew she could wait years for a deceased kidney to become available.
Rather than wait, Eileen and her family sought a living donor. With living donation, one kidney is surgically removed from a healthy person and transplanted into the person in need. The donor's remaining kidney enlarges to take over the work of two.
A kidney from a living donor usually lasts longer post-transplant than one from a deceased donor and has a lower chance of rejection. In addition, a living donor kidney transplant lessens the amount of time a recipient needs be on dialysis.
A Sister's Gift
The road to finding a donor match was not an easy one.
Eileen's son, Jason, then in high school, was deemed too young to donate; her daughter, Amy, had an incompatible blood type; and her mother was considered too old.
Then, Eileen's older and only sibling, Ruth Wiggins, volunteered and began the evaluation process at their local hospital.
"My sister is totally selfless and everybody loves her," Ruth said. "If you knew my sister, you would give her your kidney.'"
Ruth was tested for antigens. In general, if the donor and recipient share antigens, which are proteins on cells, rejection of the transplanted organ is considered less likely.
The pair did not share a single important antigen, and when they went to their local hospital to ask about a living donor kidney transplant they were turned away.
"I was upset. My sister was upset," Eileen said, but she wasn't about to give up. "It wasn't the end of the road."
The Penn Experience
Eileen's husband, Walter, had the idea to try the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He suggested Penn Medicine because it is an academic medical center, which combines education, research and clinical trials to provide patient-centered care, that uses cutting-edge technologies, resources and therapies other community hospitals may not have available.
Eileen met Penn's Ali Naji, MD, transplant surgeon and surgical director of the Kidney Transplant Program.
"Dr. Naji is just a wonderful, wonderful doctor," Eileen said. "He said, 'No problem. We do transplants with no antigens here.'"
The Penn Transplant Institute has one of the largest and most experienced transplant programs in the country. And on June 9, 1998, Eileen received her sister's right kidney.
"Everything went perfect," Eileen's sister, Ruth said, recalling that after surgery, the sisters walked the hospital halls together. "It was a phenomenal experience. The hospital was terrific."
A 20-Year Success Story
When she got out of the hospital, Eileen got a watch with an alarm to take her anti-rejection drugs and other medications at exactly the right time.
In the intervening years, Walter passed away and her two children have started lives of their own.
"Twenty years is a long time, and I am still going strong," Eileen said. "I did not expect to be this active 20 years later."
Eileen sees a nephrologist near her home every three or four months, and visits Penn nephrologist, Dr. Simin Goral, once a year. Eileen does her best to follow her doctors' advice. She exercises, eats well and takes her medicine.
"I promised myself that I would treasure and take good care of me and my sister's kidney," Eileen said. "She is my angel!"
Eileen and Ruth are still close. They a live less than a mile from one another in New Jersey, and on the 20th anniversary of the kidney transplant, Eileen, Ruth and a small group of friends went to a local tea room to celebrate.
"I have a wonderful life," Eileen said.