The Challenge: Polycystic Kidney Disease
When John Marenkovic was 18 years old, doctors diagnosed him with high blood pressure. This would be little more than an inconvenience for most people, but John’s family had a history of kidney disease. He wasn’t going to take any chances and decided to see a kidney specialist.
The doctor diagnosed John with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a disease that causes cysts to form on the kidneys. When too many cysts grow — or if they get too large — severe kidney damage can occur and may lead to kidney failure.
At that point, kidney transplant is the only way for a person to survive long-term.
John was no stranger to PKD. As a child, he watched his father endure the disease until he received a life-saving kidney transplant. Of John’s four siblings, three of them also had PKD, including his twin sister.
As the years went by, he knew he would need a kidney transplant if he reached kidney failure. But he wouldn’t let that stop him from living his life.
“I knew I had this disease for a long time, but I didn’t let it bother me,” John said. “Nothing stopped me from being active.”
He played sports, got married, started a family, and had a fruitful career as a deputy sheriff.
Although he was doing all he could to stay healthy, when he was 53 years old, the disease progressed into kidney failure. The moment he was hoping would never come, finally did. He was going to need a transplant.
The Path to Living Donation at UPMC
John went to a transplant center close to home in Ohio to see if he was right for the transplant waiting list. He also chose to come to UPMC for an exam.
He hoped to increase his chances of receiving a deceased-donor kidney by being on the waiting list at two centers.
When John came to UPMC for a pre-transplant assessment, he felt right at home. He could tell that UPMC’s kidney transplant team truly cared about him and his health.
“After how UPMC treated me and the professionalism they showed, I knew right away it’s where I’d receive my transplant,” John said.
With more than 95,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant, John knew that the wait could take years. But, he also knew that living donation was an option for people on the waiting list.
The Solution: A Colleague Donates A Kidney
John was a deputy sheriff at a county sheriff’s office in Ohio. Of his 240 fellow deputy sheriffs, no one knew he was sick. They only learned once he started to prep for dialysis and opened up to his coworkers about how serious his condition was.
One of John’s colleagues and close friend of 10 years, Marcella Walter, wanted to help. She talked to him about how to start the process to become his living donor.
“Honestly, there was no hesitation,” Marcella said. “I knew John was getting prepped for dialysis and I thought that if I could help him avoid that, I would.”
It wasn’t a question of whether she would donate. It was a question of whether she would be a suitable donor.
Marcella is a single mother of five. Even though her children are all adults, she couldn’t go through with the transplant tests without talking to them first. She had a feeling they would understand how severe John’s problem was and approve of her decision to help him.
“They know I’m stubborn and that, once I set my mind to something, I pretty much always follow through,” Marcella said.
This was no different.
Her kids instantly gave their support and Marcella was the first person to go through the transplant testing process for John.
John felt like he won the lottery finding a living kidney donor so fast. And Marcella felt just as blessed learning that she could help him.
“I was lucky enough to call John and give him the news that I was a match,” Marcella said.
John and Marcella had a successful living-donor kidney transplant on Dec. 12, 2017.
The Results: Making it Easier to Become a Living Donor
By March, both John and Marcella were back to work at the Sheriff’s department.
“At my sickest, I stopped doing so many things I enjoyed,” John said. “But after the transplant, I started them back up again.”
Marcella’s generous donation sparked a crucial conversation in the workplace about time off for living donors and recipients. The Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave for living donation. It does not guarantee paid time off.
John and Marcella’s sheriff saw how important living donation was and looked into paid time off for donors at the department. He learned state employees in their area of Ohio could get paid time off, but county like John and Marcella could not.
His county sheriff’s office revised their contracts. They added a section that lets workers who donate an organ to take six weeks of paid sick leave.
“It’s another great outcome from this,” Marcella said. “Hopefully time off won’t be a deciding factor for becoming a living donor anymore.”
Marcella started with a selfless act to save John’s life. Together, they’ve been able to start a conversation about living donation — possibly saving even more lives in the future.
John and Marcella’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.