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A gift from inside — Freeland woman donates a kidney to save her brother’s life

Wendy Baesler at home in Freeland with Koda, the family’s 5-year-old toy Australian shepherd. “It seems like the right thing to do,” she said of her kidney donation.   - Roy Jacobson / The Record
Wendy Baesler at home in Freeland with Koda, the family’s 5-year-old toy Australian shepherd. “It seems like the right thing to do,” she said of her kidney donation.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Wendy Baesler of Freeland is taking her gifting to new heights this holiday season by giving her brother something he’s wanted for years.

A new kidney.

“It seems like the right thing to do,” Baesler said Monday morning. “He needs it, and I’ve got a spare.”

With that, Baesler flew off to California, where she will undergo about six hours of surgery today to have her right kidney transplanted into her brother’s abdomen.

The surgery will be at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, where Baesler’s brother, Dan Hansen, lives and practices law.

“Actually, I’m not nervous,” Baesler said, noting that the transplant has been anticipated for some time.

“At this point I’m just curious. I want to know how it all comes out. Maybe I’ll get nervous tomorrow. It feels like another item on my to-do list that I’d like to check off.”

“This is a terrific gift Wendy is giving me and my family,” Hansen said Tuesday from California, shortly before entering the hospital for pre-op. “We’re calling her Saint Wendy around here now.”

“Yeah, I’m nervous,” he added. “I’ve had a long time to think about it. But I think we’re ready. Everybody’s been very supportive.”

“I actually feel pretty good,” Hansen continued. “This is a preemptive transplant, before dialysis. My skin itches, but that’s what happens when your kidneys start to go.”

About five years ago, Hansen, then in his late thirties, developed an extremely sore foot. An emergency room doctor diagnosed gout, then did some tests and found him to be in end-stage renal (kidney) failure.

One doctor told him he was at 20-percent kidney function, the level at which he could be placed on the donor list. The doctor told him he would probably need a transplant within six months.

“I hope you’ve been nice to your siblings,” the doctor added.

An urgent search was made for a donor within the family. Hansen has type O blood, and could only receive a kidney from someone with the same blood type. Baesler and a cousin are both type O, and both passed the required medical screenings.

Baesler said she stepped forward because doctors prefer the closest relative, all else being equal.

The National Kidney Foundation estimates that about 350,000 people in the United States have end-stage renal disease, and about 67,000 people die of kidney failure every year. In a typical year, nearly 47,000 Americans are awaiting a kidney transplant. Because of the shortage of donors, only a small percentage receive them — and for those, the wait can take years.

“I decided early on that this was what I was going to do,” Baesler said.

She said the decision involved research, discussion and prayer.

“I read stories of donor experiences,” she said.

She also spoke to people who had donated kidneys.

“I talked to a woman who gave a kidney to her husband. They were actually a better match than my brother and me.”

She said medical techniques have become so advanced that the danger and discomfort of the transplant procedure have been greatly reduced.

“They used to basically cut the donor in half to get to the kidney, and the donor was left with a 9- to 13-inch scar,” she said.

Now, most transplants are done by laparoscopic surgery.

“I’ll have three small incisions to insert instruments,” she said. “They’ll also insert a plastic bag to put the kidney into as it’s removed through a three-inch abdominal incision.”

One doctor

Her brother currently is at 7-percent kidney function, she said. Doctors told him it would be better to do the transplant before he reached 5 percent, requiring dialysis.

“The same surgeon will be removing my kidney, then putting it in Dan,” Baesler said. “The surgeon will leave Dan’s two kidneys in place and add mine, so he’ll have three.”

She said doctors have told her that her risks from the surgery are low, even though at age 40, she’s a little older than the average donor.

“I’m expected to be released from the hospital after about three days,” she said. “They told me to plan for four to eight weeks for total recovery.”

Baesler said her brother, who is 43, will have a more difficult recovery. Doctors must find the correct mix of anti-rejection drugs. With his immune system suppressed, he will have to limit his contact with people for the first month.

“His recovery will be one to three months, and he will have to take anti-rejection drugs the rest of his life,” she said.

Baesler said the long-term effects of her kidney donation should be “minimal to none.”

“We only need about half of one kidney to live without problems,” she said, adding that she will have to avoid things that could cause injury to her remaining kidney, and try to stay in the normal weight range — “the things most of us should do anyway.”

“My career in contact sports is over,” she joked, adding: “They tell me I should avoid riding motorcycles. That was something I always wanted to do after the kids are grown.”

Long-term look

She said kidney donors on average have a longer life expectancy than the general population.

“To donate, you must be very healthy, so that isn’t surprising,” she said.

Baesler said she faces about the same odds as anyone else of developing kidney disease, but if she does, she’ll go downhill faster. But having been a donor, she would go to the top of the kidney list.

Baesler and her husband, Jeff, a fiber-optics specialist with Whidbey Telecom, have four sons: Adam, 14; Jacob, 12; Andrew, 8; and Sam, 6, all in South Whidbey schools. They moved to Whidbey Island from Renton 13 years ago.

She said her husband has given his full support.

“He was concerned at first, but feels comfortable with it now,” Baesler said. “It was a matter of prayer for our family.”

She and Dan and their brother, Joe, 35, grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where their parents, Boyd and Barbara Hansen, still live.

“It was a good, happy childhood,” she said. “Everybody got along just fine,” although as older brother, Dan was prone to teasing.

Baesler’s mother arrived Monday to care for the children while she and her husband go to California. She said her father will drive to Stanford “to hold everybody’s hand.”

“He’s worried, as most parents would be, about having two of his kids in surgery at the same time,” she said.

Time off

Baesler opted for a December transplant instead of March, because she’s scheduled to return to the University of Washington for winter quarter, where she teaches two classes in accounting each year.

She’s a graduate of Brigham Young University in Utah and has a master’s degree from the UW. She was working on her doctorate, “but I just stopped,” she said.

Hansen and his wife, DeAnna, have two daughters: Paige, 11 and Brooke, 5. For fun, he stunt-flies his small plane.

“I’m grateful that I can potentially help my brother be around to raise his girls,” Baesler said.

She said Hansen is doing well, and was scheduled to work up to the day he went into the hospital. She said the cost of testing and surgery will all be covered by her brother’s medical insurance.

“Travel costs aren’t covered,” she added, “but my brother has generously paid those.”

Baesler said her husband will stay in California until she is released from the hospital, then return home to Freeland.

She will stay on with a college friend in the Palo Alto area for perhaps another two weeks, as the doctor suggested.

The Baeslers attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Maxwelton Road, and the members have offered to help, as have friends and neighbors, she said.

She said a transplant is not a cure, but it’s preferred to dialysis Furthermore, she said, “A kidney from a living donor has a much better chance of surviving the transplant and, on average, lasts almost twice as long as a kidney from a cadaver.”

She said her donation would also remove her brother from the donor list, freeing a kidney for someone else.

“It’s the right thing for me to do,” Baesler said. “I think most people in a similar situation would make the same decision.”

“Hopefully, everything will go well,” Hansen said. “I’m looking forward to the next 40 years.”

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