KALAHEO — Kalaheo resident Sandy Webster has a lot to be thankful for. On three occasions, the most important men in her life have donated a kidney to her.
In 1977, Webster was diagnosed with Henoch-Schonlein Purpura, an immune disease that can affect the body’s organs. In her case, it caused potentially fatal kidney issues.
“I became ill, and in November of 1977 my father donated his kidney to me,” she said. “I was 13 at the time in middle school, and it allowed me to finish high school and college. I met my husband and had a wonderful life.”
In 1995, her health began to deteriorate and she needed another kidney transplant.
“My kidney had gone through its useful life at that point,” she said. “My family, I mean everybody, even strangers, were tested to be donors. It ended up that my husband, a living unrelated donor by the way, which was very unique at that time, was a close enough match.”
Her husband Chris gave her the gift of health on that Valentines Day in 1995 when he donated his kidney to her. At that time they were living in Michigan, an hour west of Detroit, with their six-year-old son but wanted to improve their quality of life.
“We even chose then to move out here to Kauai in 1999 because life’s too short,” she said. “We wanted to enjoy what Hawaii had to offer while we still could.”
In 2014, she started having kidney issues again, and over the course of the year continued looking for another donor.
“That year was hard, the quality of life just became very difficult,” she said. “It finally got to the point where not only could I not walk from my house to my car without breathing heavy and needing to rest to where I just had to stop work and just stay home.”
Their son, Christopher, went through the process of becoming a donor and was determined to be a perfect match. On Good Friday of April 2015, he donated one of his kidneys to her.
“We knew we could plan and we could actually schedule a donation from a live donor, which is very different,” she said. “So the wait and anticipation is exciting, it’s scary, too, at the same time.”
Not many people are fortunate enough to receive three kidney transplants, because they can develop harmful antibodies. Despite having received two transplants in the past, she was fortunate her son was a compatible donor.
“I’ve watched the process of donation go from 1977, where the donor, my father, was cut literally half way around his body. They took out part of his rib to bring that kidney out,” she said. “As a recipient, I’m laying on my back for seven days straight and in the hospital for six months.”
“Now you’re out in two days, where you’re walking and need to be moving within 24 hours. My son did it arthroscopically. He has two little incisions you can’t even see and one that is small, maybe an inch, because they had to be able to pull the kidney out. He returned to work rather quickly and did really well and myself too.”
She is now back to work as a cyber security specialist at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, while her husband is employed as a tennis pro at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort.
“It’s totally awesome to be able to do that for somebody,” Chris said. “I didn’t know when I was going in to do the operation how easy it was. I was out of the hospital in an hour and a half after I woke up…. I’m extremely thankful, because I still have my wife. She’s not on dialysis, and she’s not suffering.”
Recently, Chris wanted to help a high school friend suffering from liver disease and in need of a transplant. He volunteered over the course of the year to take a series of tests to determine if he was a compatible match. Unfortunately, the final in-depth MRI scan showed he wouldn’t be able to donate part of his liver to her.
“While the whole process was not difficult, it was a little disappointing, because he really wanted to help her,” Sandy said. “We’re hoping the exposure to that will help other people come up and potentially be donors.”
“The process to donate is not as scary as it was 40 years ago. Most donors can return to work within two to three weeks. Being a living donor is such a special opportunity to save somebody’s life that more people should consider, both kidney and liver. It can save someone’s life and give them an opportunity to spend more time with families and friends and everything that’s important to them.”
With technological advances in medicine, now small implants can even act as dialysis machines for kidneys so people don’t have to be tied to machines.
“I’m thankful for that too, because it means a lot of people now can have their lives extended,” she said. “Even on dialysis, you still have a better quality of life than you did years ago.”
Sandy’s health is excellent now, and she has much to be thankful for.
“Now I get to do all those things again, I get to enjoy tennis and swimming and just going out with friends and being able to go on hikes and look at the beautiful surroundings we have here. I see colors differently; everything is much brighter, because you appreciate everything.”
This Thanksgiving holiday, she plans to spend time with family, whether it’s a quiet dinner at home, hiking in the canyon or just sitting on the couch with the dog watching a movie.
“I have a remarkable family of men, my father, my husband, my son,” she said. “Of course you can’t forget your support team, my mom, my sister-in-laws, my sister and her family. Without them the recovery can be difficult. I’m very blessed I have a very special family.”
“I am in fact most thankful for my health, because without that you really have nothing,” she added. “When you’re surrounded by friends and family, it’s just happiness. You can enjoy all those foods, you can enjoy the friendships and the laughter.”