Everything Rochelle O’Herrick knows about giving she learned from her father, David.
“My dad raised my sisters and me on his own from the time we were little. He made sure we had everything we needed and then some – a trampoline, roller blades, a swing set, a pool. If we needed new softball bats, he’d work overtime to make it happen.”
When David was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the early 2000s, it was manageable. After getting progressively sicker, including several heart attacks, dialysis was ultimately needed to do what his kidneys couldn’t on their own. It was the Fall of 2016 and David was suffering from end-stage renal disease (ESRD), otherwise known as kidney failure.
“Even with dialysis, my dad’s future looked grim,” Rochelle said. “We were told he would likely only live a handful of years and there would be a greatly decreased quality of life.”
Months earlier, at the recommendation of his nephrologist, David had visited Penn Medicine for a kidney transplant evaluation. However, the tests needed to evaluate his eligibility were too much for David’s ailing kidneys. They would have to wait until he was on dialysis – which began soon after, in October.
Dialysis treatments came at four-hour stretches, three times a week – and weren’t easy.
“My dad got sick after every dialysis treatment. He tried to keep his head up, but at the end of the day, it was eating at him,” Rochelle remembered.
“My skin was all messed up from the constant needles,” David added. “I’d gotten used to it, but only because I had to.”
“It was no way to live,” Rochelle said.
That’s when his grown daughters – Rochelle and her sisters Jennie and Alexa - decided to shift their efforts into high gear.
A paralegal, Rochelle moved home to help care for David, while older sister Jennie jumped headfirst into online research, reading about every single transplant option out there that might help their father’s health.
Transplant Choices, and Chances
The statistics and stories Jennie found online underscored what David’s nephrologist had told the O’Herricks months prior: Penn Medicine is the best choice for a kidney transplant.
David decided to pursue the evaluation for transplant at Penn Medicine’s Transplant Institute. A comprehensive evaluation, one that included blood tests, imaging scans and other medical and psychological testing, would determine if he was eligible to be added to the transplant waiting list. If he qualified, David would receive a healthy kidney when one became available from a matching donor.
The family knew that transplant could not only improve David’s quality of life, it could also save his life. They also knew there was a chance the wait could be long, for some the wait for a suitable kidney was too long. Then came the day came the family learned that with David’s other health concerns taken into consideration, his chances of getting a kidney from a deceased donor were very low. Having a living donor step forward was the only viable option.
Research was kicked into high gear and the sisters learned from Penn that living donor organ transplants often provide better outcomes and eliminated the uncertainty of the wait. During a living donor kidney transplant, a recipient receives a new kidney from a healthy donor – often a family member, friend, or other close acquaintance. The sisters decided to take their efforts one step further.
“We made the choice to pursue the living donor kidney transplant option,” Rochelle explained.
In January 2017, each O’Herrick sister completed a kidney living donor referral form, the first step in the qualification process. Once the questionnaires had been reviewed by Penn’s Living Donor Kidney Transplant team, the women were given the green light to move forward with the next step: blood type testing. This testing, also known as ABO testing, gauges the compatibility of a live donor’s blood type and the intended recipient’s blood type.
Results came back for Jennie and Alexa. Neither of them was a match for their dad.
“I just remember praying, ‘God, please let me be a match,’” Rochelle remembered. “So, when my living donor coordinator, Mary Houston, called and told me I was a match to my dad, I was thrilled.”
One Step at a Time
The O’Herricks had new reason to feel hopeful. Still, there were hurdles Rochelle needed to clear before she could be given the complete go ahead to give one of her two healthy kidneys to her dad. Her evaluation included several visits to Penn Medicine in Philadelphia and many screenings.
“There was urine testing. There was a pap smear. I was tested for everything from HPV to my likelihood for diabetes. My dad and sisters came with me to every visit. They took such good care of me, and it was a great way to get to know the faces at Penn, too.”
Rochelle asked Penn’s transplant staff every question that came to her mind.
“I was so fortunate to be able to talk with another person who had also donated a kidney to her father,” she said. “I was feeling good, and, I was fascinated by the whole process, too.”
A Non-Medical Hurdle: A Dad’s Loving Heart
With the living donor transplant process underway, things were looking optimistic. Then, in April, David brought up something that was weighing on him. They both knew the benefit for him, a longer, healthier life. But David worried about his daughter.
“I just couldn’t get comfortable with my daughter giving me her kidney,” he said. “I was worried about the chance of any complications or side effects, and her medical future.”
Rochelle couldn’t imagine passing up an opportunity to save her dad’s life. But, she didn’t want to defy his wishes, either.
“I said to my dad, ‘I want to give you my kidney. I need you in my life. But I will only keep pursuing this if you’re comfortable with it.’”
That’s when Mary Ann Lim, MD, a nephrologist and member of Rochelle’s donor evaluation team, was able to provide the final reassurance that changed David’s outlook.
David learned that studies of the long-term effects of kidney donation showed that donors can expect to live full, healthy lives. In most cases, donors had few long-term health problems, with no decrease in their life expectancy as a result of their donation. He also learned that if Rochelle donated her kidney and then ever needed a kidney transplant herself, she would move to the top of the deceased donor list.
Armed with this information and a Penn team committed to his daughter’s safety, David was ready to move forward.
Days later, Rochelle was cleared to donate her kidney to her beloved dad. The procedure was scheduled for June 13, 2017 at Penn Medicine’s Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) in Philadelphia.
A Date with Dad: The Day of Transplant and Months After
“I was nervous the morning of the transplant, but I never had a second thought,” Rochelle said. “I knew we were in good hands and that I’d do anything to bring health and happiness back to my father.”
Rochelle went into surgery first, where transplant surgeon Peter Abt, MD, removed her kidney using a laparoscopic technique. Laparoscopic surgery uses much smaller incisions than a traditional surgical operation, greatly improving the donor's recovery process. The healthy kidney was immediately implanted into David by surgeon Paige Porrett, MD, who was in an adjoining operating room. The six-hour procedure went smoothly.
As they emerged from anesthesia, Rochelle and David’s beds were placed next to each other so that dad and daughter could say hello and hold hands before being wheeled into their respective rooms for the night.
“My hospital recovery was hard at times. Thankfully, whenever I needed anything, the Penn team got it for me. When I was in pain and nauseous at 2am, my nurse, Bincey John, stayed by my side all night, so I wouldn’t be alone.”
Three days after their surgeries, Rochelle and David were discharged. Back home in the Pennsylvania suburb of Lansdale, they shared a couch and spent the next few weeks watching some of their favorite shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. David, whose early recovery had been relatively easy, experienced a few ups and downs, but continued to show signs of improvement.
“I noticed right away that he had more energy than before the transplant, and his skin wasn't as jaundiced,” Rochelle remembered.
Less than six weeks after donating her kidney to her dad, Rochelle was able to return to work – but didn’t stay long. Inspired by her experience as a donor, she left her paralegal job and started taking prerequisite courses at a community college in hopes of attending nursing school – ideally at Penn Medicine.
“Penn is competitive!” she said with a laugh. “I hope I get in there. But I’m entering this field either way. I ultimately want to work on a transplant unit, since I have firsthand experience as a donor. It’s such important work, and I really want to be a part of it.”
Post-Transplant: A New Life Well Lived
David continues to grow stronger. No longer bound by dialysis, he has even been able to travel, including a recent trip to Canada.
“I joked with Rochelle, ‘Hey, your kidney just went to Canada!’” he laughs.
Today, David undergoes weekly blood tests at Penn Medicine’s Transplant location in Radnor, close to home. Once a month he sees his Penn nephrologist, Melissa Bleicher, MD, in Philadelphia, at Penn’s main campus. Doctors are still adjusting his diabetes medication to find the right new balance, but already, David’s life is brighter than when he spent three days a week hooked up to dialysis.
“I’m so grateful,” he said.
“I’d do it all over again,” she said. “I feel like my life has only changed for the better.”
When asked what advice she has for someone considering kidney donation, Rochelle suggested, “Stay positive and proactive as you go through the process. Ultimately, you have to make the decision for yourself and you have to want to do it, because it can be a lot – but it’s the best feeling in the world to know you gave someone back their life.”