A lot of people complain about trips to the dentist.
Not Tim Buckley. At least not anymore.
Buckley, 62, of Eau Claire, credits a dental appointment with saving his life.
The unusual story began last May as Buckley was dealing with the progression of a hereditary condition called polycystic kidney disease. The incurable disease — which causes cysts to form on both kidneys, ultimately leading to decreased function — contributed to the deaths of one of Buckley’s brothers and a sister, so he understood the potential gravity of his diagnosis.
With Buckley’s kidney function dipping below 20 percent, his doctors at University of Minnesota Health determined Buckley was eligible for a transplant — a day he dreaded but knew would come eventually.
But just getting on the national transplant list doesn’t guarantee that a patient will get the needed organ. As of Valentine’s Day, 95,353 Americans were on the waiting list for a kidney donation, with the average wait time between three and five years, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. An average of 13 people on the list die every day waiting for a kidney, the National Kidney Foundation reports.
Several of Buckley’s relatives and close friends volunteered to be living donors but were deemed not a match or were rejected for medical reasons.
So with all of that weighing on his mind, Buckley stopped at Hillside Dental in Eau Claire on May 17 for his semiannual checkup. He casually mentioned to his longtime hygienist, Ann Dohm, that someone from the University of Minnesota might call and ask for his medical records and that the office had his permission to release them.
Dohm asked Buckley what was going on. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Ann is my hygienist too, so I can vouch for her friendly, talkative chairside manner.) Buckley then spilled the beans about his health challenges and his need for a kidney donor.
“I started cleaning his teeth and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got to see your grandkids,’” Dohm said in an interview last week.
As Dohm walked Buckley out after his appointment, she spontaneously uttered the words that would change the course of her patient’s life.
“She says, ‘I could do that. I have two kidneys, and I only need one,’” Buckley recalled with a chuckle.
Sure enough, Dohm immediately started researching living kidney donation and then went through a battery of tests to see if she was a good candidate.
When she finally was approved as a donor, Dohm followed the advice of another hygienist in the office and brought Buckley a gift. She delivered the good news by presenting him with a can of kidney beans and declaring, “These will have to do until you get mine.”
Buckley was nearly speechless.
“I was so choked up I could hardly talk,” he said. “How do you thank someone for doing something like that?”
The transplant took place at University of Minnesota Medical Center on Jan. 24. Doctors described it as “textbook boring,” Dohm said, meaning her transplanted left kidney began working immediately on Buckley’s right side and recovery went smoothly for both patients.
Dohm was released after two nights in the hospital and three weeks removed from surgery was still feeling a little low on energy last week. The 54-year-old expects to be back to her normal, active self soon and hopes to return to work in another week or so, she said, expressing gratitude to Hillside Dental and her family for being supportive of her decision.
As for Buckley, who had been facing the daunting prospect of going on dialysis, he has a new lease of life.
“I’m feeling a lot better. Today it was so nice out I went out and walked around outside,” he said Wednesday, when temperatures climbed into the 40s. He hopes to return to his sales job at Viking Electric Supply in early March.
Anne Lecuyer-Koich, transplant coordinator at UM Health, said Buckley’s prognosis is very good, adding that most kidneys from living donors last 20 to 40 years.
For his part, Buckley is still a little shocked at how his transplant came about.
“To have somebody unrelated step forward and do that is unbelievable,” he said, describing himself as “just a schmuck who needed a kidney” and Dohm as “the guiding light who had one to offer.”
UNOS statistics indicate that of the 1,293 kidneys donated nationwide in January, 785 were from deceased donors and 508 were from living donors. At UM Health, about half of the 80 to 90 living donor kidney transplants done annually come from people who are unrelated to recipients, Lecuyer-Koich said. The university recently completed its 113th transplant from a nondirected donor — one who doesn’t know the recipient — since the program started in 1998.
Regarding organ donors, “We think they are awesome,” Lecuyer-Koich said. “I think Ann (Dohm) is one of those altruistic people who decided she could safely do this and help make someone else’s life better.”
Dohm, whose mantel is lined with thank-you cards, choked up talking about all of the gratitude sent her way.
“To me it’s not a big deal, although I know it really is because it can save somebody’s life,” she said. “I am the one who wants to fix everything, and this is just just something I could do.”
Her only rewards for herself were a coffee cup she ordered with the words “God gave me two kidneys so I shared” and a planned trip to Chicago in April to take part in an effort to break the world record for the largest gathering of living organ donors — I’d call them real life heroes, and I’m not just saying that because the next time I see Dohm she’ll be wielding sharp instruments while I’m reclining in a dental chair. The Chicago event, planned at the sculpture known as “The Bean,” will raise awareness about the need for organ donation.
After the two families bonded during their time at the hospital together, Dohm also has one other commitment this summer: She was invited as a special guest to a Buckley family reunion.
“We’re stuck with each other now,” Dohm said.
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