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A New Kidney, New Life

Just hours after her kidney transplant, Alison Simon gave her family reason to smile.

The 14-year-old girl was still recovering from kidney transplant surgery when her mother saw the first signs of color in her face and hands. The blush across her cheeks was something that she hadn’t seen in months.

“I was just taken aback by her white hand, the color in her lips and cheeks,” says her mother, Colleen Simon. “At that moment, I realized that she was already getting better.”

A rare procedure

Alison’s February surgery was the fourth pediatric kidney transplant ever performed at Sanford Health. The difference that it has made for this Seneca, SD, teen is incredible, she says.

“I can hardly believe how good I feel,” says the teen, who no longer has to put her favorite activities, like band, golf and horseback riding, on hold. “I had hoped that this would get better and it’s incredible how much better I feel every day.”

Kidney transplants in children are fairly rare procedures, says Sanford pediatric nephrologist John Sanders. Only about 500 to 600 pediatric kidney operations are done each year in the United States, compared to about 16,000 to 17,000 a year with adult patients.

“I expect that we will average about two a year from this point on,” says Dr. Sanders who came to Sanford Pediatric Nephrology in July 2010. “It’s an important option to have available for patients like Alison who reach end stage renal disease.”

Alison discovered very suddenly that her kidneys had failed. For the past two years, she had suffered strange food allergies. Every few months she’d find that there were more foods that gave her gastrointestinal difficulties.

At the same time, doctors thought she had developed exercise-induced asthma. She’d struggle to breathe when she walked up a flight of stairs at school and by the end of the school day, she’d be exhausted.

“I got tired more and more easily and would even take naps during the day,” says Alison. “That was really weird for me because I’d always been the type of person to be up at 6 and go all day.”

Her life changed

When Alison came home from band camp last August, she felt and looked worse than ever, her mother said. Colleen decided to take her to the emergency room at the hospital in Aberdeen, where the family was shocked to learn that the girl’s blood pressure had skyrocketed.

After a few lab tests, the doctor informed them that Alison’s kidneys had failed and she needed to be airlifted to Sioux Falls in the next 20 minutes. At Sanford USD Medical Center, Dr. Sanders told the family that Alison’s kidneys had been irreparably damaged by a rare auto-immune disease that also affected her lungs, eyes and gastrointestinal system.

She began dialysis, but found that it was highly difficult since her body responded slowly to the process. Doctors advised the family that they should consider a transplant as soon as she had been clear of the auto-immune condition for six months.

“I was kind of like, ‘Let’s do this right now,’” says Alison. “I was up for anything that would make me feel better right away.”

Finding a solution

The best option for Alison was an adult kidney, since smaller kidneys carry a greater risk of injury to the organ. Most centers don’t even transplant kidneys in children under age 10 for this reason, said Dr. Sanders.

“By the time a child is nine years old, her kidneys have grown to about two-thirds of the size of an average adult kidney,” said the doctor. “We’re less likely to have complications involving the connections to the body if we use an adult kidney.”

Alison’s father, Brian, was the first family member to be tested to see if he could donate and he was a match. On Feb. 27, both daughter and father were wheeled in for surgery.

The teen bounced back quickly, getting to return home nearly a week earlier than most transplant patients. She gradually eased back into the school schedule, returning to class full time in April. Her father is back to work full time, too, as a farmer and rancher.

“I feel like we’re getting back to a new normal,” says her mother, who only has a few follow-up appointments now on the family calendar. The family has enjoyed this change from the days when they had daily visits to doctors’ offices.

Alison said she now easily makes it through her day without pain or exhaustion. Those school stairs that used to slow her down are no problem, and she even has energy left for things like playing the trombone, golf, and brushing her favorite horse.

“I run up the stairs and even skip a few steps and feel fine at the top,” Alison says. “It’s very cool how good I feel.”

Posted Date: May 2012