Vail Daily health feature: Vail living kidney donor and recipient talk about their transplant journey
Be a donor
• Visit the National Kidney Registry for more information about living kidney donation: http://www.kidneyregistry.org.
• For information about bone marrow donation, visit http://www.bethematch.org.
Sunday marked a milestone for Eagle-Vail resident Beth Murray and former Vail resident Peter Howe: the five-year anniversary of the day Murray donated one of her kidneys to Howe.
Just more than five years ago, Murray felt called by God to do something for the greater good. She didn’t know what the “something” would look like, so she waited.
“I sat still in it, and it presented itself three weeks later at Vendetta’s,” said 53-year-old Murray, who works as an echocardiographer at St. Anthony’s Summit Medical Center in Frisco.
It was December, and Murray was sitting in Vendetta’s with a group of friends, drinking a beer after spending a day skiing.
One of Murray’s acquaintances, Peter Howe, was at the table. Howe, who is now 63, had lived in the Vail Valley for 20 years, averaging 100 days of skiing a season until moving to Grand Junction with his wife in 2001. By then he was suffering from arthritis and kidney disease. Despite being on the kidney transplant list for two years, he still made it over to ski with his friends. That day at Vendetta’s, he shared some bad news with his friends. A woman who worked with Annegret, his wife, had offered to donate a kidney to him, but the transplant wouldn’t be taking place.
“She had gone through all the tests and passed every single one of them except for the kidney function test,” Howe said. “She got a 78 or a 79, and they won’t do it unless it’s 80 or above.”
When Murray learned Howe’s blood type — A positive — the loud room went completely silent for her.
“I knew then that’s what I was being called to do,” said Murray, who attends Calvary Chapel Vail Valley.
Howe remembers the next words out of Murray’s mouth quite well.
“She said, ‘Well, I’ll give you mine,’” Howe remembered. “I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t say a word.”
The offer was all the more overwhelming considering the recent disappointment.
“It was such a 180-degree turnaround that (it) was even more of a roller coaster ride,” Howe said.
‘A really good match’
That day, Murray asked Howe to send her the donor information. She didn’t contact him until her donor tests were complete.
“I was a really good match for him,” Murray said. “I called them and said, ‘It’s a go. How about May?’ (Annegret and Peter) of course, just about fell to the floor. It’s not easy to come across a live donor.”
Until the surgery happened, Howe was afraid to get his hopes up.
“I told her, ‘Whatever happens, if you don’t show up, don’t worry,’” Howe said. “I tried to give her no pressure. … This is totally elective surgery. She could have gotten up and walked out.”
But she didn’t.
“I never regretted it,” Murray said. “I cried with great joy knowing that I would be helping someone. I never thought about the consequences for me. I heard some stories before I’d gone in, about a younger woman who did it and had to leave high altitude. I heard some stories filled with adversity. I didn’t deter me for one second.”
Life with three
While Murray now has one kidney, Howe has three — his own two, plus Murray’s. The last five years have been a challenge for Howe, who only recently started working 20 hours a week at Home Depot in Denver, where he and his wife moved a year and a half ago. His recovery has been difficult, he said. The immune suppression drugs he takes to keep his body from rejecting the kidney have been hard on him. He tires out easily. He takes a dozen different drugs each day, he said, and has “acute stomach problems.” There’s a laundry list of foods he’s allergic to now.
“I can’t drink anything but water,” he said. “No gluten. One of the additives in most gluten-free flours is tapioca; I’m allergic to that. It’s quite a long list. Anything that’s hard on your stomach in any way: spicy, acidic, too rich or has any kind of gluten or heavy flour, absolutely stops me in my tracks,” Howe said.
In spite of this, Howe is grateful for the transplant.
“It’s definitely night and day better than dialysis,” he said. “There’s just an extreme spectrum of results. I’m way better off than I would have been any other way. It’s just that I had a lot of things going on that were not clearly visible to me.”
Howe’s kidneys are doing extremely well.
“As far as I know, my kidney function is as good as a normal person,” he said.
Despite his health concerns, Howe still makes it back to Vail to ski.
“I don’t ski the back side much yet, because I don’t have the energy, but I can ski probably up to half a day on the front,” he said.
One is enough
Many people don’t know that they can live with one kidney, said Murray, who has fielded that question over and over.
“One kidney is enough; people need to know that,” she said.
Murray nicknamed her remaining kidney “Isabella.” Following surgery, which was paid for along with the follow-up care by Howe’s insurance, Murray took five weeks off to recover before going back to work full time. If she’d had more complications, her short-term or long-term disability insurance would have covered her.
“I went in with no regrets, but I’m also an informed person; I didn’t go in naive,” she said.
She and Isabella faced a kidney infection at one point — “they missed some labs,” Murray said, “but we got past it.”
Within three to six months of the surgery, she was back road cycling and training in the gym four days a week. At the one-year mark, Murray was able to resume all of her outdoor passions — road biking, cycling, working out in the gym, lifting weights, backpacking, hiking, camping and skiing — “without any level of fatigue,” she said.
Now, five years later, Murray is “completely thriving.” And she still has no regrets.
“None, none at all,” she said.
“If we can encourage people to give back while they’re still thriving — and know you can continue to thrive after you do it — it’s so inspirational,” she said. “There’s something so sweet when I see Peter’s face. I’m merely the vessel. God is working to help people understand his love.”