TRAVERSE CITY — Gene Oesterling’s name has been on the waitlist at the University of Michigan Transplant Center for almost a year. But the Traverse City resident said it could take up to five years before his name is called.
“Roughly 1,200 people are on this waiting list,” he said. “They only do 40-50 transplants per year.”
Oesterling, 74, was diagnosed with a chronic kidney disease about five years ago, just before surgery to replace his heart valve. Though his heart issues are hereditary, he said doctors in Traverse City and Ann Arbor are not sure what is causing his kidneys to deteriorate.
His wife Bernadette said he was admitted to the hospital for the first time in his life for the surgery. Her husband does not smoke, exercises daily and eats healthy foods.
“It wasn’t so difficult to change our diet, but we’re a little more mindful,” she said. “He did all the right things. Visits to the nephrologist (kidney specialist) are with fingers crossed and prayers.”
Oesterling sees a nephrologist in Traverse City every two months and one in Ann Arbor every six. He gets regular blood tests that shed light on his kidney function, which he said is currently around 17 percent. Kidneys function normally at about 60 percent.
“We are not sure what is going to happen,” Bernadette said. “It’s up and down; the numbers fluctuate. We’ll see in time.”
Oesterling's doctors suggested finding a living donor and, if that is impossible, a deceased donor. The process can be tricky, Oesterling said, because not only does the donor need to be healthy, but he or she also must be a match.
A few of their friends wanted to donate, but their age makes them ineligible. Bernadette is unable to help her husband because she only has one working kidney.
“The younger someone is, the better,” she said. “A transplant is the option for the best quality of life. People only need one kidney to function properly.”
The third option is dialysis, but the Oesterlings said that is a last resort. Dialysis involves removing blood from an artery, cleansing it and adding necessary substances back into the body.
“If he was to go on dialysis, that robs the shelf life of the heart valve,” Bernadette said. “We hope that we won’t have to.”
Despite the difficulties, the couple maintain their daily life without too much interruption. They try to remain positive and hope that a donor will be found.
“It’s difficult for someone to give a kidney and it’s not something you want to ask for,” Oesterling said. “But stress won’t help.”
Meanwhile they want to raise awareness of the organ donor shortage, Bernadette said.
“I don’t think people in this community realize how many people are going through this. There is a large need,” she said.
The University of Michigan Transplant Center pays donors’ medical bills. People can call 800-333-9013 to learn more.