A Tale of Two Kidneys

Life takes unexpected twists and turns as two longtime friends battle kidney disease.

At 10 o’clock every evening, 52-year-old Jim Wilson takes 27 pills. There are magnesium tablets, vitamins, anti-rejection medications­—you name it. It’s a small price to pay. Wilson got a new kidney at Christiana Hospital on Sept. 27, 2011. And that transplant saved his life.

Meanwhile, Wilson’s longtime friend Paul Graefe, 51, of Folsom, Pa., tries to sleep as he undergoes nocturnal kidney dialysis at Crozier Medical Center. He spends three nights a week at the center hooked to a machine that performs the cleansing duties his failing kidneys can’t. He hopes to catch enough sleep so he can be alert at work. He’s an account representative for Wells Fargo Bank.

Wilson and Graefe are childhood friends and former college roommates. They’re both pastors. Graefe was best man at Wilson’s wedding. Wilson officiated Graefe’s wedding. And both have kidney disease.

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They’ve known for years that their kidneys would fail them. They joked that someday they’d smoke cigars and eat potato chips (strictly forbidden activities for kidney patients) while enduring dialysis together.

Two similar stories, two different endings—at least for now. “It’s probably as near to a miracle as one could expect,” Wilson says of his unexpectedly rapid kidney donation from a surprising source. Graefe still awaits a donor.

Wilson, who is vice president of academic affairs at Wilmington University, learned in an odd way that he was born with one normal kidney and the other diseased: He flunked a life insurance exam in 1982. He experienced a slow decline that reached end-stage renal disease in 2010, then went on the transplant list.

“The fatigue was profound,” Wilson says, adding that he felt often “like a cloud rolling over my head.” Foot pain and numbness added to his misery.

The wait for a transplant runs three years or more. Wilson was lucky. He and his wife, Tina, participate in Blue Hens for Christ, a Newark Church of Christ program that supports University of Delaware students. The couple has befriended many students over the years, including Stephanie Brown and her then-boyfriend, Bob Moglia. Brown, who knew about Wilson’s condition, participated in the first Wilmington Kidney Walk in 2008.

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Brown and Moglia married and moved to Texas after graduation. She works at Texas A&M University while Moglia takes doctoral courses. Brown and Tina Wilson remained close, and the Wilsons attended their 2010 wedding. When Brown learned that Wilson’s condition had worsened, she decided to  donate one of her kidneys.

Initial testing in December 2010 indicated she was a suitable donor. A second round of tests covered health factors, as well as social and psychological issues involved in organ donation.

When she called the Wilsons about her decision, she says, “Their initial reaction was shock. At no point had we been that close that they would expect me to donate a kidney.”

“It was a bit of a shock and a reality check,” says Wilson. “You’ve been anticipating this for some time, and now it’s really going to happen.”

The transplant took place on Sept. 27, 2011. It took about four hours to remove Moglia’s kidney and another four hours to place it inside Wilson (where it sits in the front of his body rather than the back).

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Both patient and donor recovered quickly. Moglia returned to work after a month and experienced occasional fatigue for several months. “I will always have to watch what I eat and maintain a certain exercise regimen,” she says. But she saved a life, so it’s a small sacrifice.

Wilson appeared at the 2011 Wilmington Kidney Walk just two weeks after the operation. (The walk raised more than $100,000.) He went back to work six weeks later.

In addition to the pills, Wilson maintains a high-protein, low-carb diet and drinks lots of water. He gets regular checks to ensure that his body is not rejecting the new kidney. “I didn’t realize how bad I felt before,” he notes. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

The Wilsons call Moglia their angel. “To me it was just the right thing to do,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was.”

Wilson’s long-term prognosis is excellent, according to Dr. S. John Swanson III, chief of Christiana Care’s Kidney Transplant Program. “All cases are, of course, special to us, but his situation demonstrates the miracle of unrelated living donations,” says Swanson. “Save for perfectly matched siblings, with present immunosuppression to prevent rejection, these survivals essentially equal the survivals from living related donations.”

Wilson’s experience is bittersweet because his good friend Paul is not so lucky. “I’m a textbook case, and Paul is not,” says Wilson. “I’m sensitive to that.”

Graefe suffers from polysistic kidney disease, an inherited genetic disease that claimed his mother’s life in 1989. It causes cysts to form on the kidneys, and it gets worse over time. For years, Graefe “intentionally didn’t check” to see if he had the disease, but discovered it 10 years ago while being treated for high blood pressure.

Graefe had hoped to receive a kidney from his brother, Tim—who wasn’t a match. Graefe is on the cadaveric list at Temple University, and the wait is three to five years. He’s also on two paired donor lists. Under this arrangement, Tim Graefe would donate his kidney to someone with whom he’s better matched, and his brother would receive a kidney from someone else’s donor. The waiting period generally runs one to two years.

Graefe endures dialysis three times a week, which brings dietary constraints. “There will be a very definite lifestyle change,” says Graefe. “On the plus side, I should have a little more energy and a little less discomfort.” He hopes to maintain both his regular job and his weekend work as a minister for the Church of Christ in Folsom.

Wilson’s transplant serves as a positive reminder. “Jim has been encouraging and has made a big difference in the whole attitude and outlook that I’ve been able to maintain through all this,” Graefe says. “I’m really pleased that he’s doing well.

“I am optimistic,” he adds. “I believe God moves in mysterious ways. It will happen when it’s supposed to happen.”

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