The holiday season of gift giving has come and gone. But two sisters, of Sussex County share a gift that continues to give year after year.
Lake Hopatcong resident Jill (Haden) Malanga, 53 gave her sister Mary (Haden) Sierchio, age 59, from Sparta, the gift of life in November by donating one of her kidneys to her.
The women seated in the photo, with Jill on left and Mary on the right, are grateful for one another, feeling healthy two months after surgery and wishing to share their story.
Mary Siercho suffered from polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and was facing a future of dialysis as her kidneys began to fail. In 2007 her Nephrologist, Dr. Barbara Price advised her that it was time to begin the evaluation process for a kidney donation in the future. Recipients can wait years for a compatible, available organ transplant.
Seirchio’s husband Bob volunteered to be tested in the hopes of donating one of his own kidneys to his wife. A co-worker of Seirchio’s also stepped up to the plate, taking the simple blood test to determine her own blood compatibility to Seirchio’s.
Neither of the potential donors was a match. However, in the meantime, her sister Jill Malanga was being tested independently.
“She knew what tests she had to have done and wanted to be prepared for when the time came that I would need a transplant,” said Seirchio. “It is such a great thing my sister did for me. Knowing Jill though, it wasn’t even a thought process for her. She said ‘yes’ without giving it a second thought and honestly, I wouldn’t expect anything different from her.”
But the two sisters did give the idea of a kidney donation a lot of thought. Not for themselves, but for their families. Seirchio’s husband and grown children, daughter Marissa and son Bill witnessed the affects the PKD was having on Mary and were well aware of her inevitable future without a transplant.
Malanga had her husband George’s support but was concerned about upsetting her children, George age 17 and Brielle age 12. “We spoke a lot about it to our kids so they were familiar with the idea before the date of the surgery,” said Malanga. “ When the transplant date drew near, they were prepared and well informed. We simply talked about it in a way that would minimize any unnecessary or premature concern.
The sisters requested to be placed in the same recovery room following the transplant. They wanted to be near each other afterwards to offer support and encouragement to one another.
Malanga was operated on first through three small incisions, removing her left kidney robotically. Sierchio was then prepped to receive her sister’s kidney. Within several hours after the operation Sierchio’s creatinine levels, which measure kidney function, started to drop according to plan. Prior to the surgery her levels were at a high of 4.8% functioning capacity. Patients begin dialysis when creatinine levels drop just below 5%. According to the two-team transplant physicians, Sierchio’s levels dropped in half within the first 24 hours, which indicated positive results from the transplant.
“I will never forget watching from my hospital bed as the color returned to normal in Mary’s face. It was as if she was re-born. Life was returning to her,” said Malanga.
The message the sisters share with others about their experience with organ donation is simple; organ donations save lives.
There is a new national database project by the United Network for Organ Sharing, which helps find matches for patients and donors. The concept is that would-be kidney donors, like Malanga and Sierchio’s husband and co-worker, are not always a match for a loved one but may certainly make a compatible match for another patient in need of a transplant. The program is called an organ swap or exchange and aims to cut down the long waiting period for a match to become available. In this project a donor gives a kidney on behalf of their loved one – a patient. In exchange, the loved one in return receives a compatible organ from another donor on the list. The more living donors and patients registered, the better the chance for a match and the more lives saved.
“I was actually very surprised at how well I felt afterwards,” said Malanga. “It was not nearly as difficult as I thought it might be.”
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, with 87,000 people waiting for kidney donations fewer than 17,000 transplants are performed in the US each year, and just over a third are from living donors, compatible relatives or friends. For the many who have no living donor available to them, they wait for a kidney from a deceased donor.
“Mary is thankful for the kidney transplant. But I also think I got a gift…the gift of two healthy kidneys and being able to help Mary continue to live a happy, healthy life. We are both blessed,” said Malanga.