Rusty Kelley will have to put off that planned trip to Six Flags for at least a year, but it's a safe bet who he'll invite first when that day comes.
These days the 37-year-old Columbia County man has two best friends: his cousin Renee Temples and the kidney she gave him during a March 6 transplant operation.
Temples may be up for a ride on the roller coasterT he Mind Bender, but Kelley's doctors think his kidney could use time to acclimate to its new surroundings before being bounced along a steel track at high speeds.
In 1994, Kelley was diagnosed with IgA Nephropathy, an incurable kidney disease related to proteins in the blood that ultimately leads to kidney failure. By 1998, the ability of his kidneys to remove wastes from the bloodstream was declining; by last December, his kidney function was at less than 50 percent.
"I was feeling real tired," said Kelley, who continued to work at family-owned Kelley Appliance. "I would come home and go to bed early and I was sleeping a lot."
With the new year came the realization that it was time to begin preliminary tests in search of a donor. If having his body sliced open and his kidney replaced sounded unpleasant, Kelley found the alternative considerably more frightening. He hadn't undergone dialysis yet, but the three-hour, three-times-weekly process of removing wastes from the blood via machine was on the horizon.
"I wasn't really afraid of surgery, I was just ready to get it over with," Kelley said. "Me and my wife, we couldn't sleep at night."
After initially being told that the Medical College of Georgia's transplant clinic didn't have an opening until the end of March, Kelley landed an appointment Feb. 7. Doctors performed a battery of tests on Kelley and selected relatives designed to find the closest match in blood type and six specific proteins found in the kidneys.
Temples matched four out of six proteins, enough that doctors concluded the search immediately. She then underwent more tests to make sure her body was in the peak condition required of organ donors. One month later, Kelley and Temples were on the operating table.
That's as lucky as you can get and still come out missing an organ.
According to MCG Chief of Nephrology Dr. Laura Mulloy, finding a donor that quickly is very unusual.
"If you take 100 people on dialysis right now or in need of a kidney transplant, and they don't have a living match, the average time to get a non-living donor would be about three years in this country," Mulloy said. "That's the reason we really encourage people with kidney disease to talk to family members about donating a kidney."
Aside from discussing the practical concerns of taking care of her her family, including 12- and 18-year-old children, and telling her bosses that she would miss six weeks of work as an engineering technician for Columbia County, Temples said she never had a second thought about being the donor.
"I am what you would call a worrier," said Temples, 42. "I worry about everything. But this particular process never became an issue for me. What I felt like was, God had his hand on my shoulder to calm me, because I never really got that nervous. I was just focused on the thought that this is going to make a difference in Rusty's life."
Temples said that the day after surgery she felt great, but by day three "I felt like I had been run-over by a truck."
She - along with almost 50 staples to close the incision and an epidural hooked to a morphine drip - was released from MCG five days after the transplant. Kelley, 20 staples and morphine heavier, was home a day later.
A month-and-a-half later, Temples is back at work and carrying something significantly heavier than a kidney.
"I feel like I've been blessed to have the opportunity to do something that makes a tangible difference in somebody's life," Temples said. "Because it doesn't come along every day."
Between making a gradual return to work and coming up with a list of the greatest birthday presents on Earth to give his cousin for the rest of her life, Kelley makes two visits a week to the transplant clinic at MCG and pops about 30 anti-rejection pills a day.
It's not roller coasters at Six Flags, but it sure beats dialysis.
"I feel 100 percent better," he said. "I'm sleeping more, I've got more energy. I'm ready to go."
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