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A tale of two kidneys

Mother gives life to daughter

Michelle and Betty Gunn. Photo by Susan Bromley. (click for larger version)
July 25, 2012 - Betty Gunn gave birth to her daughter Michelle 40 years ago.

On Aug. 8, she will give her child life again when the two undergo a mother to daughter kidney transplant.

"It's a second start on life," said Michelle. "She gave birth to me and now she can save my life."

Three years ago, Michelle was at work one night when she felt overwhelmingly sick and lost consciousness. At the hospital, doctors discovered her kidney filtration rate was low. She was sent to a kidney specialist and a biopsy was ordered. Michelle's kidney was functioning at just 36 percent, and she was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, in which proteins build up in the kidney tissue. These proteins are antibodies that normally help the body fight infection, but in this disorder, they overwhelm the kidneys. The cause of this disorder, also known as Berger's disease, is unknown, but can progress over many years with few symptoms.

For Michelle, the diagnosis was a "huge surprise." She had suffered from migraine headaches for many years, but otherwise had no health issues.

Following her diagnosis, her kidney function quickly plummeted from 36 percent to 16 percent, where she plateaued for quite some time. Michelle was placed on the transplant list for a donor kidney and underwent dialysis training, although she was told a transplant would likely be more successful if she could avoid dialysis beforehand.

She also learned that she would likely have a lengthy wait for a kidney—perhaps as long as five years for a donor. This is when her mother stepped in to see if she could be a match.

"I told my husband, 'I'll go first, if I'm a match, you're saved,'" recalls Betty. "You just kinda grab hold and do what you gotta do. When you bring a child into the world, you will do what you have to do to keep her here and save her."

Betty was a match and Michelle's doctors told her she would get a kidney from the most optimum donor—her mother.

Still, the transplant wasn't immediately scheduled. Doctors preferred to wait until Michelle's kidney function was below 10 percent. With kidney function of just 16 percent however, she was sick often, and exhausted.

Michelle is the single mother of five children—Marcus, 19; Anthony, 15; Breonna, 12; Brandon, 10, and Bryson, 9. She was previously very active, working full-time and involved with her children's activities, field trips and sports, even coaching. All of that has come to a halt, and she has had to learn to lean on her family.

"There is a huge difference in what I used to do and what I do now," said Michelle. "The kids think the transplant is like going to the doctor and getting a shot type deal."

They are excited about the prospect of her being able to play baseball and football again.

Michelle's kidney function has dropped in the past year and she is now under 10 percent kidney function. The transplant is less than three weeks away, barring any complications, and both mother and daughter are nervous, although they handle it differently.

"I'm one of those people who deals with things," Michelle said. "She's the opposite. I had to tell her she couldn't go to doctor appointments with me anymore. You have to deal with it, everyone's got problems."

Michelle and Betty are both concerned about the recovery period.

"This situation becomes much more difficult," said Michelle. "We're both down and out, who is going to take care of the kids? They (doctors) make you give a game plan. I wanted to say, 'This is going to be a free-for-all, wild and crazy.'"

Michelle has a friend who will take the kids for a week while mother and daughter are in the hospital following surgery. Betty is expected to be in the hospital for about two days, while Michelle may be in for five to seven days. It may be up to six months before Michelle is completely recovered and she said while the healing process is longer for her, the pain is expected to be worse initially for her mother.

Betty's husband, a disabled veteran, will help with the kids and they are planning to buy lots of cereal and Pop-Tarts, they laugh.

"We'll both be in pain together," said Betty. "What are you going to do?"

Still, she is excited for her daughter.

"She can get her life back and be Michelle again."

All with some help from the woman who first gave her life.

A tax-deductible fundraiser account has been set up at Genisys Credit Union, 250 N. Ortonville Road, Ste. B, to help defray Michelle Gunn's expenses. Checks can be made payable to Betty Gunn, with a notation in the memo line "Fundraiser for Michelle Gunn."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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