Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Local boy makes good

I just love stories like this. What an amazing thing to do for someone.

Are you a registered organ donor? Does your family know that? Write it down. Tell your family. File an advanced directive with your doctor and make sure your family has a copy; designate medical power of attorney with someone who will abide by your wishes and won't let others override them. Me? Take whatever you can use and torch the rest. Sprinkle that in a hole and plant a blueberry bush. Every year, comment on how great grandma tastes this season. Bake a pie and think of me.

'Just good problems'
Brandon Stahl Duluth News Tribune
Published Sunday, December 24, 2006

When Lance spied a teddy bear sitting on a recliner, the 16-month-old made a crawling break for it and happily hugged the toy. Suddenly, his sister, Hana, wanted it, too.

“That’s my bear,” the 3-year-old said.

The two tugged for it, but big sister eventually won, pulling it out of Lance’s arms, toppling him to the floor. He cried — but the only thing that seemed to be hurt was his feelings.

“See?” said their mom, Stephanie, as she picked Lance up off the floor. “We still have problems. Just good problems.”

It’s been mostly good problems since July 20, when Lance received a kidney from his father, Eric, in an operation that reversed the family’s lives. No more marathon dialysis sessions for five or six days a week. No more medical crises sending the family into fear their son might not make it through the day. No more lives being put on hold and the family being split apart.

“We can start over,” Stephanie said. “We can spend Christmas together.”

They couldn’t do that last year. On Christmas at about 3 a.m. Lance spiked a fever and his family rushed him to the hospital, where he and his mom spent the day. Meanwhile, Eric was home with Hana.

“I didn’t really get to see my daughter that day,” Stephanie said.


That was a typical day for the family.

Shortly after Lance was born on Aug. 9, 2005, he was diagnosed with what’s known as “prune belly syndrome,” a rare disorder that affects only one in every 30,000 live births. It left Lance with a deformed and disfigured abdomen and severe kidney problems. He would need 11 surgeries over nine months, including removal of his kidneys and ureters after they failed.

Most of Lance’s life was spent in a hospital applying temporary fixes to his health until he could grow big enough to get a transplant. He would get better only to suffer sudden downturns.

Last year, the four had been living at the Ronald McDonald House for a few weeks before Christmas so they could be close to Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview, where Lance was being treated for kidney failure.

Eric and Stephanie had to quit their jobs to care full-time for their son. Even after selling many of their possessions, bills kept piling up. Eventually they had to sell their house.

“We loved Duluth,” Eric said. “But we just couldn’t stay there.”

They spent months in the Ronald McDonald House waiting for the transplant, which was delayed twice after blood tests came back with problems.

Finally, more than two months after surgery had been originally scheduled, Lance’s blood tests came back normal and the transplant was a go. After a six-hour surgery, the operating physician pronounced the transplant a success.

“Your son has a beautiful kidney,” the doctor told Stephanie and her family.


Once the transplant took place, they were finally able to get their lives in order.

What they first noticed was new life in Lance. Before the transplant, at 11 months he lacked energy, could barely sit up by himself and needed to be fed through a tube.

About a month after surgery, Stephanie said, it seemed like Lance was having milestones “once a week.” He’s now crawling, talking, standing up, feeding himself and having tug-of-wars with his sister. The only physical sign remaining that he was so sick is a feeding tube in his nose. Even that, the parents say, should be gone in the next two months.

“He no longer looks like a baby,” Stephanie said. “He looks like a little boy.”

Dr. Elizabeth Ingulli, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and nephrologist who is assisting with Lance’s care, said a kidney transplant for a baby is extremely rare. And for those who get them, the first six to 12 months are the most critical to see if the babies will reject their new organs, she said.

So far, Ingulli said, Lance seems to show almost no signs of rejection. “His progress has been excellent,” she said.

The Wittleders moved out of the Ronald McDonald house in late August into a two-bedroom duplex rental. The family says that it’s not ideal — it’s small and doesn’t have a yard — “but it’s a start,” Eric said.

Eric and Stephanie have found full-time jobs: Stephanie as a project manager for a direct marketing company, and Eric working for a bike manufacturer in Minneapolis. He often rides his bike the 12 miles there.

The surgery was physically painful for Eric at first, he said, but now the only lasting effect of losing his kidney is an occasional pain in his abdomen.

There are still concerns with Lance, namely making sure his body doesn’t reject his kidney. And because his immune system has been suppressed by the anti-rejection drugs he has to take, a minor malady such as a cold can become a major problem. He spent a night in the hospital on Dec. 17, his first in several months, after having a bad cough.

“That was a quick reminder of how good we’ve had it,” Stephanie said.

Stephanie and Eric have to juggle their jobs while getting Lance to physical therapy, occupational and speech therapy.

But those problems pale in comparison to the ones they had a year ago, they said.

“Our son doesn’t have to live his life in a hospital,” Eric said. “He can be at home with his family for the first time for Christmas.”

Stephanie added, “I feel such a sense of joy. It’s so good to have the family together.”


No comments: