In the mid-1980s, when he was in his 60s, Robert Wetzel spent his free time hunting, snowmobiling at Yellowstone National Park and going to every home Penn State Football game. In the fall of 1987, Robert wasn’t able to hike as well as he normally could, so he decided to see his doctor, who determined his albumin was high. Robert was referred to a local nephrologist, Dr. Dan Gandy, who diagnosed him with acute bilateral nephritis. It was at that time that the recommendation for a kidney transplant was made.
“Dr. Gandy guided us through our decision-making and was instrumental in dad’s diagnosis and pre-surgery care,” says Robert’s daughter, Cathy Wetzel.
“I was in shock when I first heard the news,” Robert recalls. “No one else in my family had issues with their kidneys, so this was very surprising. The whole family was willing to be tested to see if they might be a match to be a live kidney donor – my wife, my three daughters and my son.”
Robert’s wife and four children anxiously awaited to see if they would be a match for him – a process that begins with determining if the donor candidate’s blood type is compatible with the intended recipient.
His wife and kids were all compatible blood types, so they each completed the next step in the testing process: tissue typing.
Tissue typing compares the tissue from the donor candidate to the tissue of the intended recipient by looking at the number of antigens. Antigens are markers in your body that help the body distinguish between self and non-self, and each person receives six antigens from their mother and six from their father. In kidney transplantation, each person’s 12 antigens are compared to learn how close a match the donor is to the recipient.
After Robert’s wife and children were tested, they learned that his daughter Cathy was the best match. “I was excited to learn I was good match for my dad,” says Cathy. “Somehow I just knew I’d be the one to donate.”
The surgery was scheduled for June 14, 1988. The drive from their home in Williamsport, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia took four hours. After the drive, Robert remembers that he could barely walk from the car to the hospital.
“I hadn’t started dialysis, and I had become more and more weak – I was actually turning yellow. I was very sick,” says Robert. “I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Cathy.”
The transplant surgery went exceptionally well – the kidney began functioning immediately and hasn’t quit since. Both Cathy and Robert were grateful to the kidney transplant surgeon, Dr. Donald Dafoe, and his team when they saw that Robert’s energy returned and he was able to return to most of the hobbies he enjoyed before he had become ill.
“We couldn’t have done it without an awful lot of support of our family and friends – they were wonderful,” says Cathy.
Last year, Robert celebrated his 90th birthday and the 30th anniversary of his kidney transplant.
Every year, on the anniversary of their transplant, the family comes together to celebrate. As the new year begins, congratulations to Robert and Cathy from the entire Penn Transplant Institute!