Robb and Lora Wilson say becoming part of the transplant community has changed their lives.
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In some ways, Robb and Lora Wilson have built their lives around other people's parts.
In his case, it is the pancreas and kidney he received from an Ohio woman who died in 1999. In her case, it is the kidney she donated last year to a 71-year-old eastern Pennsylvania woman -- a woman she now talks to once a week.
The Wilsons, who live in Churchill, insist there is nothing special about them, but his medical pilgrimage and the transplant community they were pulled into as a result have transformed their lives.
Robb Wilson, a 52-year-old project manager in the biomedical informatics department at the University of Pittsburgh medical school, got Type I diabetes when he was 13. Before his transplants, he could barely remember a time when he didn't have to take insulin or could eat sweets with abandon.
He had wanted a pancreas transplant for many years, but after his gall bladder was removed in 1999, his kidneys failed, and he ended up needing both organs.
For someone going on the transplant list, though, he was extremely fortunate. He had only been on dialysis -- the procedure that artificially cleanses the blood of toxins because the kidneys can't do it -- for three months when his donor's organs became available.
In September 1999, two teams of surgeons operated on him for eight hours. The organs began working immediately, but two days later, the pancreas stopped functioning, and Mr. Wilson was taken back into surgery.
The surgeons opened him up, "and all they did is they moved it around some," he said, and suddenly, the pancreas began working again.
In the meantime, Lora Wilson, 47, who manages an office for orthopedic surgeons in McKeesport, had started thinking about becoming an altruistic donor, giving one of her kidneys to anyone who could use it.
But she waited for several years because her mother was still alive, and "she was a real big worrier, and it would have killed her to have me do something like that."
After her mother died in 2005, though, Ms. Wilson began dwelling on donation so much it would wake her in the middle of the night. Then, at a Gift of Life dinner presented by the local chapter of the National Kidney Foundation a year ago, she heard a father speak about how desperately his son needed a kidney, and that decided her.
For many living kidney donors today, the operation is done laparascopically. Surgeons insert tubes through tiny incisions to separate the kidney, and then expand the belly with gas to stretch the incision wide enough to remove the kidney without damaging it. It causes less pain and quicker recovery time.
But surgeons also take the smaller of the two kidneys, and in Ms. Wilson's case, that kidney was on her right side, and her surgeons felt it would be better to do an open surgery with a full incision.
Her husband was anxious about that, but Lora Wilson was at peace.
"I had been on the fence about being a donor earlier, but then I thought, 'I can't do this, but God can give me the grace to do it.' And once I realized that, nothing really fazed me."
Three days after her surgery, she met the woman who got her kidney, Dolores Iannacone from Bushkill, Northampton County, near Allentown, along with her husband and three daughters.
Today, they talk nearly every week. Recently, Mrs. Iannacone said she had spent the day shopping, an adventure she once would not have attempted because dialysis sapped her strength so much.
"When she does things like that and thanks me it's just a thrill," Ms. Wilson said.
When people tell her how selfless she has been, Ms. Wilson, who does not have children, compares what she did with pregnancy.
"You make a bodily sacrifice for a person you haven't met yet, and you don't know if you'll like."
"And in my case," she added wryly, "I don't have to take care of my recipient for 18 years the way women have to do with a child.
"I think what a mother does for a child is a much more sacrificial gift of life."
For more information about kidney donations, contact:
CORE, the Center for Organ Recovery & Education, www.core.org, or 1-800-DONORS-7.
National Kidney Foundation of the Alleghenies, www.kidneyall.org, or 1-800-261-4115.
Mark Roth can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-1130.