Organ donor and recipient say they were meant to come together

Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) If you believe in fate, LaVonne Vogt and Hope Russo's story will confirm it for you.

The two women barely knew each other a year ago. Now, because one donated a healthy kidney to the other, they are forever linked. Almost a month after the operation that gave Russo a second chance at a healthy life, they look back over events and know it was meant to be.

Russo, 36, had been waiting two years for a kidney to replace the ones she had, damaged by an unusual autoimmune disorder called Wegener's granulamatosis.

In spring 2000, Russo began noticing something wasn't right. Her joints swelled. She ached all over. Once active and out on in-line skates or her bike whenever possible, Russo was struggling to climb a flight of stairs.

She went to the doctor, who eventually diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis. But even after going on medication, she didn't feel better. A few months later, Russo became so anemic she ended up in the hospital and had more tests. Then doctors diagnosed Wegener's, and damage to Russo's kidneys was already done.

The next few months were a blur as Russo went into chemotherapy to get the disease into remission. She spent most of her time at home because the medications made her sick. The family-owned janitorial business had to go on without her.

''There were some days that I could only drag myself out of bed long enough to do payroll, then my dad would pick it up and I'd go right back to bed,'' Russo said. ''It was horrible. Terrible.''

Next came dialysis, a daily routine in which Russo used an at-home device to cleanse her system, doing the job her failing kidneys could not. For 7 1/22 hours every night, she stayed hooked to the machine. It worked while she slept, but she never slept well.

As life-threatening events tend to do, the disease prompted Russo to rethink her priorities. This, she believes, is where fate comes in.

''Throughout this whole thing, I thought if I get out of this I'm going to sell the janitorial business and go into real estate because I've always been interested in it,'' Russo said.

So, while homebound with chemo and dialysis treatment, she threw herself into her studies and eventually became licensed to sell real estate.

When Russo felt well enough to try working outside of home, she started at Prudential Jack White Real Estate. But in June 2002, she had an opportunity to work at Coldwell Banker Fortune. She liked her previous job, she said, but for some reason she felt drawn to the new position.

Russo's new desk was next door to that of 55-year-old Vogt, an associate broker for the past 12 years.

''She was so nice and so sweet,'' Vogt said of Russo. ''She'd ask me advice because she knew I had experience, but she wasn't around that much. When she was, she was always nice and never complained. You'd never have known anything was wrong at all.''

A few months later, in October, a group of women at the office decided to go to lunch and invited Russo. It was then, during a conversation about being tired, that Russo revealed to co-workers what she was going through. Yes, she was on the donor list waiting for a kidney, she told them. No, her family members are not a proper match. Yes, the dialysis is exhausting.

And then this question: What is your blood type?

O positive, Russo said.

Across the table, Vogt had an idea.

Approximately 82,000 Americans are on the United Network for Organ Sharing waiting list, 55,000 of them for kidneys. Most kidney donations are made after organ donors die, and while those transplants are nearly 95 percent successful, kidneys from living donors fare better, especially after five years of use in their recipients.

Vogt didn't know any of the statistics, but that night she couldn't get Russo's plight out of her mind. She lay in bed thinking about how healthy she was, how she had never even been to the hospital and how there had been stretches in her life when she didn't even catch a simple cold.

''God just seemed to grant me good health,'' Vogt said. ''I just felt like if there was something I could do, I should do it.''

At the end of October, Vogt went to Pennsylvania to visit her family. While at her mother's house, she opened the front page of the local newspaper one morning to see a close-up photo of two hands embraced in a tight grip. The story detailed the donation of a kidney from one minister to another who'd had a kidney transplant years earlier that was failing. When she read that article, Vogt knew it was time to help.

''It was just like a sign,'' Vogt said. ''I read the article, and I was absolutely riveted. I looked at my mother and said, 'Mom, there's this girl in my office who needs a kidney, and I was thinking about donating one.'''

When she got back to the office in November, she told Russo, ''I want do donate a kidney.'' Russo broke into tears.

Russo knew not to get her hopes too high after Vogt's offer to help, but she was profoundly grateful that someone had stepped forward.

''I would never, ever ask anybody to do something like that for me,'' Russo said. ''I just wouldn't. It's a big decision, and it's just something I could not do.''

Kidney donation is, in fact, a major surgery, but medical advances have made it much less demanding on the donor. Much like a Caesarean section, an incision scar at the bikini line is about all that remains after the procedure, which takes about four hours. In the newer procedures, a few additional small scars are caused by a laparoscope, which is used to locate the kidney.

Russo gave Vogt the number for Jessica Buck, an organ donation coordinator at Virginia Mason Medical Center's transplant office in Seattle, and over the next few months Vogt went through the process of being tested for compatibility.

Vogt's blood type matched. Next was tissue typing, which looks for up to six genetic markers matching the recipient and donor. Vogt had one of the six markers.

''Six out of six is a perfect match, like with a twin,'' Buck said. ''Between friends, we wouldn't expect any matching, because they're not related. It was just icing on the cake there that (Vogt) had one out of six.''

And at their hotel rooms in Seattle, on the night before the operation, the final, fateful confirmation, in Russo's mind, occurred.

''We were in my hotel room, and my sister, Faith, had just arrived late from Florida,'' Russo said. ''She was very eager to meet LaVonne before we went to the hospital.''

But Vogt was already asleep in another room, so Faith went to bed. A few moments later, Faith's phone rang. At the same moment, Russo said, Vogt's phone rang.

''I picked it up and said hello, but no one was there,'' Vogt said. ''Then it did it again and I said, 'Who is this?' and she said, 'This is Faith; who is this?' Neither of us had called each other, but there we were talking to each other.'' ''For me, it was a special moment,'' Russo said. ''My mother passed a year and a half ago, and I felt like it was her making sure Faith and LaVonne talked. After that, I had no worries at all.''

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