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Last February 43-year-old Yorkville resident Pam Cassidy received the best kind of Valentine from her husband, a text that read, “I may have found a kidney for you.” She was in the middle of a dialysis treatment when she got the message.
Pam, a nurse who’s now a stay-at-home mom of two girls, first had kidney trouble at age 20 when blood work revealed an elevated creatinine level. Her doctor suggested the test because of Pam’s family history of kidney failure.
According to Pam’s husband, Brett Cassidy, M.D., an independent OB-GYN and member of Edward Hospital’s medical staff, her condition was diagnosed in 2005 as IgA nephropathy, an autoimmune disease that in some people causes end-stage kidney failure.
By 2011, Pam’s condition worsened and she began regular dialysis treatments. This challenging chapter ended well when, four months later, she received her first kidney transplant.
But in early 2017, Pam did not feel well. She says, “I was anemic and tired and my creatinine level was going up. I also had pain in my leg.”
Over the following weeks, she tired more easily. “I would dread having to go up the stairs in our house,” says Pam.
Then on March 8, 2018, “I woke up and felt I couldn’t breathe,” she recalls. “Fluid was going to my lungs and my blood pressure shot up to something like 220 over 110.”
“The (IgA) disease process had started attaching to the new kidney,” says Dr. Cassidy.
After a stint in the hospital to lower her blood pressure, Pam began another round of outpatient dialysis and began the wait for a new kidney.
She says, “The average wait for a kidney for someone with type O blood like mine is eight years. I was told the average life expectancy for someone my age with my condition is eight years. I figured I was toast.”
Then one day at Edward Hospital Dr. Cassidy was talking to a couple of nurses in the break room, when another labor and delivery nurse, 46-year-old Lisa Brussano, came in and joined the conversation. Dr. Cassidy mentioned that his wife Pam was doing worse and needed a kidney, at which point Lisa said, “I’ll do it.”
“I didn’t know Lisa that well at that point and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” says Dr. Cassidy. But he had heard correctly.
“He wasn’t trying to talk anybody into donating, he was just telling us what was happening,” says Lisa. “I could tell by the look on his face how much he loved his wife. Then I started thinking about their kids and how worried I would be about my kids if I were in her situation. Later when I met Pam, I thought she was wonderful. I wanted to do this even more.”
Lisa is a busy, working mom of three whose schedule already included planning her upcoming wedding and preparing to transfer from Edward’s Labor and Delivery Unit to the Surgery Department. Still, she jumped into seeing if she was a good match for Pam and healthy enough to be a donor.
The process involved extensive paperwork, blood and tissue tests, CT scans and an EKG (electrocardiogram), as well as consultations with the surgeon, nephrologist, anesthesiologist, social worker and patient advocate.
Dr. Cassidy went through a similar effort to become a donor the first time Pam needed a kidney, but kidney stones prevented him from qualifying.
Lisa’s and Pam’s surgeries were performed successfully at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on April 27, 2018.
“The first two and a half weeks were pretty rough,” says Lisa. “But then one day I felt really good. It was all worth it. Now I’m back to walking two miles a day and hope to return to my workouts soon.”
Says Pam, “I notice the difference in how I feel a lot more this time compared to my first transplant because I wasn’t so sick before that surgery. Now I feel amazing. I have energy and the pain in my leg is gone.
“It’s hard to find words to describe what Lisa did for me. I said thank you a million times to her. She’s amazing, an angel.”
Dr. Cassidy, Pam’s husband, adds, “The surgery was pretty much life-changing for Pam and the whole family. Now she can be very active without the fatigue. Lisa deserves recognition for what she’s done. (Kidney transplant) surgery is even more difficult for the donor than for the recipient because the surgeon harvests the kidney from the back, but it’s implanted in the recipient from the front.”
The experience brought not only better health for Pam but also a new friendship for both women. Pam and Lisa have gotten together several times before and since the surgery, and plan to stay in touch.
For now, Pam’s regimen includes regular medical appointments to follow up and check the level of anti-rejection medications in her system. She’s back to her normal routine, except for any lifting.
And Lisa, who married on April 21, 2018, describes her husband, Ryan Schumacher, as having been “incredibly supportive” of the important decisions she made during the last several months.
To others who might face a decision about being a donor, she says, “If you can give this gift to someone, don’t hesitate.”
You could be someone’s hero
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