Donating kidney ‘not a big deal’
By Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor, Editor, [email protected]
Kerry Zimmerman has been back to work at his art glass factory in Corydon for about 30 days now after being gone for about three months. He and his wife, Michele, were in Colorado, but it wasn’t for a vacation.
Kerry donated one of his kidneys to a woman he barely knows.
Patty Habermel Nelson was diagnosed when she was 36 with polycystic kidney disease, which is life-threatening and was robbing her of what most would consider a “normal” life.
“My husband (Mark) is an angel,” she said, saying “he took up the slack because I didn’t have the energy” to do routine things like wash dishes or do laundry.
PKD is a genetic disease.
“I was probably born with it,” said Patty, who met Michele at an early while attending St. Michael Catholic, Morgan Elementary and North Harrison Middle schools. Patty graduated from Providence High School and attended Indiana University.
The Nelsons opted not to have children since there is about a 50% chance of the disease being passed on to offpspring.
Patty met her future husband in Daytona Beach, Fla., while on spring break. They married in 1983.
“He worked retail, so we moved all over,” Patty said.
They have lived in Iowa, New York, New Jersey, Nebraska and have been in the Denver area the past 28 years.
Patty formerly was a paralegal for 16 years and a vice president in human resources for 16 years.
At age 58, Patty was so ill she began dialysis, seven days a week, eight hours a day.
“I exercised, ate right, didn’t drink alcohol,” she said. “I probably extended my time without dialysis by 10 years.”
As her kidneys continued to fail, Patty was finally put on the organ transplant list, but she was told to reach out to people and ask if they’d be willing to donate a kidney to her.
Naturally, her husband tried to be the donor. He had the correct blood type but at the last minute a problem with one of his kidneys was discovered, making him ineligible.
That meant the Nelsons needed to turn their attention to finding someone else.
Patty said she has always been “a very independent person” and found it difficult to ask people for something like a kidney.
Instead, she reached out to three long-time friends, including Michele, who decided to create a Facebook page asking for anyone to donate a kidney to Patty.
When Kerry heard about Michele talk about asking for a “bigger than normal favor” for her friend Patty, he told his wife he would do it. However, he didn’t want Patty or anyone else to know what he was considering until it was confirmed that he was a match.
“I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up,” Kerry said.
Kerry initially had about four telephone interviews with people questioning his motives.
Alll he wanted to do was something for his wife’s childhood friend whom he didn’t really know.
“Everybody likes to help someone,” he said.
The process of Kerry being a donor progressed.
Then, in August of 2021, the Zimmermans traveled to Aurora, Colo., and stayed with the Nelsons while Kerry underwent further testing.
“I had the most complete physical of my whole life,” Kerry said, noting it was discovered his blood pressure was a “little high” which required medication for a brief time.
“It’s not an easy surgery,” Patty said. “I had a long conversation with Michele about it. I was concerned for Kerry’s health. It was probably the hardest thing to come to terms with.”
Doctors had hoped to schedule the surgery earlier this year, working around Kerry’s schedule at the glass factory. Then, COVID-19 started “running rampant” in Colorado, Kerry said, canceling nearly all surgeries.
Finally, the surgery was scheduled for June 27.
“I started wearing my mask again, moved (glass-blowing) demonstrations outside,” Kerry said. “I was nervous about COVID … The rest of it was a piece of cake.”
Kerry had to return to Colorado a week prior for testing to make sure nothing about his health had changed.
He said he was never sick and hardly had any pain from the surgery, which was done with robotics, which reduced the chance of infection.
Kerry was discharged from the hospital two days after the surgery. Patty was able to return home four days after receiving Kerry’s kidney.
Patty said she has a “bump” in her abdomen where Kerry’s kidney was squeezed in. (She still has her own two kidneys.)
The Zimmermans headed back to Indiana on July 5. They could have received the OK to return home sooner, but they were driving, instead of flying.
Kerry received doctor orders to drink two to four liters of water a day for the rest of his life and a temporary restriction to lift no more than 50 pounds.
He said that weight limit required him to be plan ahead in how he would load glass pellets into the furnace at the factory. But, he reassured Michele he was following orders.
Kerry said the only other change in his life is he “probably won’t be playing any contact sports.”
“It’s a small price to pay to help someone,” he said.
Michele has been a positive factor in both Kerry and Patty’s health following the surgery. Patty said her long-time friend disinfected her house “from top to bottom” in preparation of Patty returning home and she maked sure Kerry was following doctor’s orders.
Both Patty and Kerry said the surgery was difficult for their spouses, as Mark and Michele were the ones who had to wait during the surgeries and then take care of them afterward.
Kerry has been back to work at Zimmerman Art Glass for about a month now. People who know about the donation, ask him about it.
“I hope to bring awareness to it,” Kerry said.
Prior to the surgery, Patty’s daily medication routine required 45 pills. Now, she said she takes 39 pills. After the first month, she saw noticeable improvement in her health.
“I’m not attached to a machine; I have more energy,” she said.
Patty gave Kerry a letter she wrote before he headed home. He said it wasn’t until he reread it about two weeks after returning home that he began to more fully understand what donating a kidney meant to Patty.
“He was not just saving my life,” she said. “He was relieving me of pain, nausea, muscle spasms, extreme itching … With renal failure, there a long list of problems.”
Patty has been doing some light house work, but she has a bigger goal.
“Before I went into complete renal failure, I danced five nights a week; I did flashmobs all around Denver and was in a couple of musical/dance shows that my dance instructors directed,” Patty said. “So, my goal is to get back to my dancing.”
While Patty can have visitors now, she is “still in quarantine” and was advised not to leave her house for “unnecessary” trips for the first year after surgery.
“I’m not going to risk losing this kidney,” she said, adding there’s always a chance her body will reject it at any time.
Patty said Kerry down plays the whole process.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said, commenting that anyone who is thinking about being an organ donor “should definitely do it.”
“If it wasn’t (a big deal), there wouldn’t be over 100,000 people in this country alone waiting for an organ donation,” Patty said. “He just looks at it so different than most people do. He didn’t feel obligated.”
Kerry said, “I feel really lucky Patty and Mark let me help.”
“He’s just a really great guy; so generous, giving, humble,” Patty said of Kerry. “I’ll always be grateful.”