By Jody Kerzman ｜Photography: Photos by Jacy
“Freely you received, freely give.”
Kayla McCloud was raised on those words. In her family, helping others and giving to those in need was expected. So when Kayla got word her cousin Carla Bock might need a kidney transplant, Kayla didn’t think twice.
“I immediately offered to be tested,” recalls Kayla. “In the back of my head I always thought I’d do it if someone in my family needed one. She was the one.”
Kayla’s family has a history of Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys. Over time, this causes the kidneys to enlarge and lose function. The disease runs in families, which is why Carla’s need for a kidney didn’t surprise Kayla.
“My dad’s mom had PKD and three of her five kids inherited the disease. My dad didn’t, which meant since he didn’t have PKD, my brothers and I wouldn’t either. That also meant we might be good kidney donors one day.”
Kidney donation also runs in her family. In 1989, Kayla’s dad, Tom Kaczynski, donated a kidney to his sister Rosemary. Nearly 30 years later, Kayla donated a kidney to her cousin Carla, who happens to be Rosemary’s daughter.
“I remember my dad donating to his sister,” says Kayla. “I was in fifth grade. My mom stayed home with us and I remember the neighbors helping with chores while he was gone. I just remember he was gone for the transplant and then home to recover.”
Kayla’s donation was nearly two years in the planning, starting in August 2015 when Carla’s doctors told her it was time to think about a transplant.
“I knew the time was coming; it wasn’t a surprise,” recalls Carla, who lives in Wisconsin. “We were watching my numbers, the level of blood toxicity of the body. Normal is 0.6 to 1.1. Mine was hitting three to four and I knew it was coming. I had gone to visit my relatives, including Kayla’s parents, in North Dakota. I told them the time was coming. I didn’t know when, but I knew it was now a matter of when, not if I’d need a kidney. I wasn’t begging for a kidney, I just wanted them to know what was happening.”
Kayla’s mom, Linda Kaczynski, not only emailed her children, but also volunteered to donate one of her kidneys. Three people—Linda, Kayla, and another cousin—all went through testing. Kayla says the testing started with bloodwork at her doctor’s office in Bismarck which was then sent to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for more tests. Doctors there called Kayla and asked her to come to Mayo for additional testing. She and her husband made the trip in November 2015.
“I underwent three days of testing,” recalls Kayla. “When the testing was done, we headed home. We had only gotten to Minneapolis when we got the call from the surgeons that I was a match.”
In fact, all three relatives who underwent the testing were matches for Carla. But of the three, Kayla was the closest match. Kayla, then 37, was also the youngest donor, which Carla says was another reason her doctors wanted Kayla’s kidney.
But it would be nearly two years before the transplant would actually happen.
“It was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait,’” says Carla.
Shortly after doctors determined Kayla was a match, Carla discovered she needed a different surgery first.
“I had open heart surgery when I was five years old. I didn’t know my heart valve would eventually need to be replaced,” she explains. “I was always tired, but I always blamed that on my kidneys. Turns out my heart was to blame.”
The valve replacement actually improved Carla’s kidney function, so the kidney transplant was postponed.
“Plus, I was still gaining strength and recovering from the heart surgery. I didn’t want to have another surgery and go backward in my recovery,” says Carla. “It was the best decision for my body and for Kayla. I didn’t want to get her kidney and then have complications.”
By this time, it was February 2017. Because of the amount of time that had passed since the original test that confirmed Kayla as a match, surgeons wanted to test her again. That testing led to yet another setback. This time, it was Kayla’s health that put the transplant on hold.
“They did a CT scan of my kidneys to check for kidney stones and ended up finding a cyst on my ovary,” recalls Kayla.
Her OB-GYN in Bismarck was able to remove the cyst. After the cyst was removed and tested Kayla was once again approved to donate a kidney to her cousin. The transplant was set for June 21, 2017.
“Of course before they did the surgery, there was more testing,” says Kayla. “There was a chance we could have been sent home without having surgery.”
Much to the relief of both women, they passed the tests and were cleared for surgery on June 21. The two were in the same operating room, side by side; Carla’s bad kidneys were removed, Kayla’s good kidney was removed, and transplanted into Carla’s body.
“My surgery took only about two hours,” says Kayla. “The first thing I remember is the surgeons coming into my room and telling me what a beautiful kidney I had.”
“I just don’t remember surgery being a big deal but I woke up in ICU and in my head that was wrong. I thought I should be on the same floor as Kayla,” says Carla. “They explained to me because they took my native kidneys, I had to be in ICU. Your native kidneys know how to regulate your blood pressure. This new kidney wasn’t doing that yet and my blood pressure dropped dangerously low. I didn’t anticipate that and I remember thinking I was going backward.”
Carla spent just over a day in the ICU, and then three days in the hospital; that’s standard procedure for transplant recipients. She then went to the Gift of Life Transplant House in Rochester for two weeks before going home. Kayla was in the hospital for just two days.
“My kidney was working right away for Carla so that was a great feeling. It was hard to hear about other families whose transplants didn’t work immediately,” remembers Kayla.
It’s been just over five months since the transplant, and both women say the road to recovery has been relatively easy.
“It’s hard to explain because I never felt bad, but I didn’t realize how sick I was. I never looked sick either. I had a belly because my kidneys were so big they were pushing my belly out. I knew I was tired but I went to work with a smile on my face,” explains Carla. “But at our four-month post-op appointment, I realized how much better my body is working now. Before the surgery, we did a 24-hour urine test; Kayla pumped out more than four liters and I barely got a liter. At our post-op, I still didn’t get as much as Kayla, but I got over three liters. My body just wasn’t functioning before.”
It wasn’t functioning because Carla’s kidneys were too large to work properly.
“My kidneys were 11 inches long; healthy kidneys should be the size of your fist. I was carrying around footballs when I should have been carrying baseballs,” explains Carla. “My kidneys weighed eight pounds; I got rid of 16 liters worth of fluids in the first two days with Kayla’s kidney.”
Removing those enlarged kidneys has also eased what was once constant back pain for Carla.
“I had back pain for years. We’re talking severe back pain. I didn’t go to bed without taking pain meds because if I did, I wouldn’t sleep. I knew it was due to my kidney issues. I haven’t had a backache since the transplant. It’s really awesome.”
Carla’s recovery is going remarkably well, and while slower than she’d like, so is Kayla’s.
“I was off of work for eight weeks, and even now, there are days where my energy just isn’t there. But the doctors say that’s normal,” admits Kayla. “My creatinine levels will always be up and the kidney I have left is growing to compensate for the missing kidney. Certain foods don’t agree with me, but I’m adapting. The scar from the incisions is uncomfortable sometimes too.”
Kayla has three scars on her stomach: two small ones and one larger one that looks much like a C-section scar.
“They warned me about those before surgery. They asked me if I’d be okay with scars on my stomach. I joked that I never wore a bikini before and I’m not about to start now so it’s all good,” she laughs. “But it took me a long time to actually look at the scar. I didn’t know what to expect and I guess I was a little scared. I made my husband check to make sure it was healing correctly.”
The good news is the scars are healing. They will always be there though, a reminder of the gift Kayla so unselfishly gave to her cousin.
Kayla will do yearly bloodwork in Bismarck; Carla will go to Mayo for yearly checkups, and knows the signs which would indicate her body may be rejecting the kidney. This month she will turn 50, and knows thanks to Kayla, she will have many more birthdays.
“It could add as much as 25 years to my life without dialysis,” says Carla. “Kayla’s donation to me is extremely special. There is a lot of emotion to it because her dad gave to my mom 30 years ago. He was the first gift. The generosity of it is insane. Asking for a kidney was very difficult; to ask someone to make their life worse to make mine better was really hard. But Kayla didn’t hesitate for a second.
“Our family has grown up with PKD. We watched our parents give and receive kidneys, and I think we all just thought that if they could do it, so could we. But generosity is a learned behavior, one that Kayla learned from her parents. It’s just insane to be on the receiving side of such a generous gift.”
MORE DONATIONS NEEDED
While their story is a familiar one in their family, Kayla and Carla know that many other people are not aware of just how common kidney failure is, or that oftentimes it could be prevented with a donor kidney.
According to the Mayo Clinic, on any given day about 100,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant. About 5,000 people die each year while waiting for a kidney.
“It’s crazy to me to think about how many people die because they don’t get a donor,” says Carla. “Many people are not as lucky as I am to have family to turn to. I’m in a support group and I have friends who have been waiting years and years and years for a kidney.
“It is the greatest gift a person can give. Thanks to Kayla’s unselfish gift, I should be able to see my daughter get married one day and have children. Without the transplant I don’t know that I would. It’s a reminder to me to be open and to be there for others that might need you.”
Still, Kayla says what she did was “no big deal.” She’s focused on sharing her story in hopes that more people will sign up to be a kidney donor. She’s trying to convince her husband to start the process, and she’s confident her daughters, now ages 12 and 10, will one day do the same if given the chance to help someone.
“When people say, ‘you did a heroic thing,’ I don’t think it really is. It’s just something our family does. We help others,” says Kayla, humbly. “Anything to improve her quality of life is worth it and I look at it that they wouldn’t do it if it was going to mess up my health. It’s a safe procedure.”
Since donating her kidney, Kayla has crossed paths with many people who have received or given a kidney.
“I feel like a member of a very special club,” she says. “Everyone knows someone who has been affected. I’ve met many of those people since this process started more than two years ago.”
It’s a process that has connected these cousins in a very special way, and reaffirmed in Kayla the importance of giving.
“If I had more kidneys, I’d do it again. Without a doubt,” says Kayla.