PEQUOT LAKES – Liz Mackenthun was working at Lakes Area Neurology in Brainerd back in 2009 when a patient file with a familiar name slid across her desk.
It was her cousin Paul Wgeishofski’s medical file, containing the results of his recent kidney biopsy. The diagnosis: Renal cancer.
Liz was devastated. She and Paul were the same age. The pair had only seen each other a couple of times since they graduated from Pequot Lakes High School in 1985, but they had grown up together.
“It was very much a shock,” Liz recalled. “I told everyone, ‘This is my cousin. Treat him right.’”
Their mothers were sisters, and so naturally they shared many of the same childhood memories. They were born six months apart – Liz is the oldest – and they had been classmates from kindergarten through their senior year of high school when their lives led them in separate directions as adults.
Doctors had been monitoring Paul’s high blood pressure for seven years before he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a disease that causes kidney failure.
In January 2010, doctors removed about 15-20 percent of Paul’s right kidney due to cancer. They were continuing to monitor a spot on his left kidney, but this kidney had to be removed in November 2012 because the cancer had returned. Paul thought he’d only be on dialysis three times a week for about six weeks, but he ended up on full dialysis for 10 months.
His son’s mother-in-law had offered to donate one of her kidneys to Paul, a surgery they thought would take place within two months. Unfortunately, she ended up not meeting the criteria for a good match, and Paul was placed on a waiting list for a cadaver donor.
While his wife, Tonya, and all three of Paul’s adult children, Ashley, 24; Nathan, 22; and Matthew, 20, would have given him one of their kidneys in a heartbeat, none were a match. They also have three granddaughters and another due in November. He had a lot to live for.
Last April, Paul’s daughter Ashley posted a Facebook status asking that anyone who has O-positive blood consider being a kidney donor for her dad. Paul’s health had deteriorated significantly. He was still putting in 55-60 hours a week at his sales job at Pan O’ Gold in Brainerd, but would collapse in his chair each night he got home.
A benefit was planned in May at the Pequot Lakes American Legion to help pay the family’s medical expenses.
Liz knew immediately what she needed to do when she saw Ashley’s post. Now living and working as a nurse in Little Falls, Liz spoke to her boyfriend, Brian Duncan, and her sons, Josh, 19, and Justin, 17, first about becoming Paul’s donor. They all gave her their blessing.
Not only was Liz O-positive, thanks to her late mother, Cathy Schmidt, who passed away when Liz was a child in 1979, but she was a perfect match for Paul, whose own mother, Carole Wgeishofski, passed away in 2012.
“The sisters in heaven have a lot to do with this,” Tonya, Paul’s wife, said with a smile.
The cousins announced the plans for the transplant at the May benefit for Paul. Tonya said when Liz came forward and offered to donate a kidney to her husband; it gave him hope that there would be an end to his health struggles.
While there was a minor glitch and delay when a tiny kidney stone was found in Liz’s kidney, it wasn’t enough of a problem to call off the transplant.
“I told Tonya, ‘Bottom line, I don’t want Paul to die. Don’t worry, I’m not going to back out. I was in it to the end with Paul and they were going to have to tell me no if I wasn’t going to donate,’” Liz said.
The night before the transplant, Liz said she slept well, knowing that she was doing the right thing. Tonya, their three children and each of their spouses gave him letters they wrote to him, telling him that he was their hero.
On July 9, doctors removed Liz’s healthy left kidney and implanted it into Paul’s abdomen. The waiting room at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis was packed with 18 family members between them.
Doctors were amazed at how well Paul’s body immediately responded to the new kidney. His skin and lips were pink again. Tonya said she felt that if Paul hadn’t had the transplant this summer, he probably wouldn’t have made it. His health had deteriorated so significantly. Liz, she said, gave him a new beginning.
“She was always saying it was no big deal, but it was a huge deal,” Tonya said of Liz, as they reunited in late August to share their story at the Wgeishofski’s rural Pequot Lakes home. “He went from looking like death to having color and looking like life again. He had a smile and color in his face. You can’t put into words what it’s like to watch your loved one and not knowing if he was going to make it. I wasn’t sure he was going to make it by the end of summer.”
“I didn’t realize I was so sick,” said Paul. “When you don’t feel good, you don’t eat and I just didn’t eat.”
Kidney transplants are often harder on the donor than the recipient. Liz spent three days in the hospital and took four weeks off from her job as a licensed practical nurse at Family Medical Center in Little Falls to recover. Paul was hospitalized for five days and then needed to remain in the Twin Cities for two months in order to be closely monitored.
Paul’s health has rebounded. He and Tonya are walking three to five miles a day and he’s slowly regaining weight. He was taking 48 pills a day after surgery and is now down to about 30 pills a day. He is gaining energy every day.
Both 46, Paul and Liz have grown closer since the transplant. Paul calls her his angel. They plan to spend more time together in the future, especially by celebrating their “transplantiversary” together every July 9 from now on.
“I miss my kidney so I have to come visit it every once and awhile,” Liz joked.
“She’s so humble but she doesn’t realize how amazing she actually is,” added Tonya.
“You gave him life.”
JODIE TWEED lives in Pequot Lakes with her husband and three daughters. A former longtime Brainerd Dispatch reporter, she now writes features for several regional publications and stories and blog posts for clients throughout the country.