MILWAUKEE » They fell in love five years ago during a spring break trip to work on a Habitat for Humanity project in Texas.
Even as their relationship blossomed, even after they became engaged and planned their wedding, they were shadowed by his declining health. His kidneys were failing. Three days a week after work, he needed dialysis.
They searched far and wide for a donor kidney, asking relatives and friends. But there was no perfect match.
The Aug. 15 wedding drew closer; the couple never gave up hope. The night of their rehearsal dinner, messages were left on their cellphones that would change their lives.
This is the story of Jackie Sitkowski and Jay Matuska and the most precious wedding gift of all, a paired kidney exchange.
“It is obviously a scary life-changing thing for both of us,” Matuska said. “But we were both willing to have it happen.”
Perseverance, planning and medical know-how all played a role in synchronizing a kidney paired donation among four people.
In the predawn hours of Sept. 3, the newlyweds packed their things and went to Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. At the same time, a son and a mother checked into a hospital in Georgia.
And so, the surgeries began.
Sitkowski’s healthy kidney would be removed and flown to Atlanta to go to the ailing mother; Matuska would receive a healthy kidney from the son.
And now, it is late October
Sitkowski and Matuska are here to tell you that a paired kidney exchange works. And they want to become advocates for donation.
“There are a limited number of kidneys available and so many people waiting for them,” Matuska said. “Through advancements in the surgeries and recovery and treatment, people are able to live for a long time.”
“I had never heard of paired transplant, but there is this tremendous program across the nation,” Sitkowski said.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing website, more than 101,000 people are awaiting kidneytransplants in the United States.
Kidneys donated from living donors last longer than those transplanted from deceased donors. Two common types of living donor donation are direct and paired exchange.
In direct donation, a kidney is transplanted directly to a recipient. Even if a direct donor can be found, theirkidney may not be compatible with the recipient because of blood type or antibodies.
A paired exchange broadens the universe of possibilities, matching donors and recipients from a national pool. A person donates a healthy kidney to a recipient. In return, the donor’s loved one receives a healthy kidney.
“At Froedtert, we’re a part of two different paired exchange programs, the National Kidney Registry and the United Network for Organ Sharing,” said Elizabeth Lee, a living donor coordinator. “Being in two of them, we’re opening ourselves up to different transplant centers.”
Since 2008, the National Kidney Registry has aided in 1,509 transplants through its exchange program. The United Network for Organ Sharing has arranged 155 kidney transplants since October 2010.
Even if a match is found, there can be hitches.
“The one difficult thing is at any time these chains or swaps can break because different recipients may get sick,” Lee said. “If something happens within that chain and breaks, it breaks everything. Sometimes, these can break the day of surgery.”
Matuska, 26, and Sitkowski, 27, are both Marquette University graduates.
He’s from Plymouth, Minn., and works as a commercial underwriter for TCF Bank. She’s from Rosemont, Ill., and is pursuing a master’s degree at Marquette in clinical mental health counseling.
Matuska, who had health difficulties in high school, was diagnosed in college with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel illness. In a reaction to medication, he twice suffered from renal failure. By late 2014, his kidneys were functioning at less than 15 percent, when he began dialysis.
He was placed on a kidney donor list, but it was recommended that he and Sitkowski find a living donor from family or friends to find a viable match.
“Jackie was the No. 1 contender,” Matuska said. “We both had the same blood type, but she wasn’t able to directly donate to me because she had an antibody that would have made rejection (of the kidney) a probability.”
They joined a national list and within weeks they were matched with a pair from Texas. Surgery was planned for July. But the match was called off because the Texas donor was injured in a car accident.
The search continued.
On their rehearsal day, the couple received voice mails from Stephanie Albano, a living donor specialist at Froedtert, telling them that another match had been found, a mother and her son in Georgia.
The couple decided to keep the news closely held to family members. They didn’t want to get their hopes up again, only to have them dashed.
Sitkowski said she would believe the transplant would take place only “when the kidney is out of my body and Jay has a new kidney. That’s when it’s going to be real.”
The week after their wedding, Sitkowski and Matuska went to Froedtert for final tests. Surgery was a go.
Sitkowski’s surgery began at 6 a.m., at around the same time the donor surgery was happening in Georgia, and was over by 10 a.m.
“Jay was getting prepped, but they let me see him real quickly,” Sitkowski said. “His kidney was flying to Milwaukee.”
Matuska went into surgery at 1:30 p.m. and was out by 6 p.m. The new kidney worked beautifully, kicking in during surgery.
“As soon as they connected it, it was working,” Sitkowski said.
Sitkowski returned to school 10 days after the surgery. Matuska returned to work the last week of October.
Eventually, the newlyweds and the mother and son from Georgia will communicate via letters. They all have much to be thankful for.
Ehab Saad, the transplant nephrologist who was involved in Matuska’s treatment, said there are lessons to be learned from the exchange.
“If you have a loved one with kidney failure, by all means try to promote living donation,” he said. “All we need is a person willing to donate on your behalf, and we have ways to figure out nontraditional means of getting a transplant.”
For Sitkowski and Matuska, the paired kidney transplant transformed their lives. They’ll eventually take a honeymoon. But they have already fulfilled an important marital vow.
They know what it’s like to have one another in “sickness and in health.”