Over the course of the next nine years, Jennifer Weston would undergo not just one, but two, kidney transplants. Yet despite it all, she still claims to have won the “lottery of life.”
“In 1998, when my mother and I were shopping for a white dress for my high school graduation, Mom noticed that my legs were puffy and swollen below my knees,” recalls Jennifer. A visit with the family doctors and subsequent lab tests revealed that Jennifer had blood and protein in her urine, and she was quickly referred to Domenic Sica, MD, a nephrologist [a kidney expert] at VCU Health.
Dr. Sica diagnosed low kidney function, and although Jennifer didn’t test positively for disease, her results looked very similar to lupus. The decision was made to treat Jennifer as if she had lupus, a regimen that included a course of chemotherapy and prednisone for a year.
Despite the aggressive treatment, Jennifer’s condition continued to deteriorate and the impact to her kidneys had become irreversible. By 2000 her doctor recommended a kidney transplant and Jennifer was referred to VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center. “I was 20 years old,” says Jennifer, “and I felt like my life was over. I was scared to death that I would never have a ‘normal’ life.” At the time, Jennifer was attending Southside Virginia Community College pursuing a degree in business. “It was a miserable time,” recounts Jennifer. “The prednisone made me gain weight and I was dealing with hot flashes and mood swings. I made the decision to withdraw from school until my medical condition was under control.”
Doris Weston, Jennifer’s mother, was tested to see if she could donate a kidney to her daughter and she proved to be a good match. On September 29, 2000, both mother and daughter underwent surgery. Dr. Marc Posner, transplant surgeon, performed the life-saving, life-changing operation. Jennifer’s new kidney started working immediately — while she was still on the operating room table.
Soon Jennifer began to enjoy the “normal” life she had feared she would never have. She returned to college, and in 2004 she earned her bachelor’s degree in business management from Old Dominion University. But Jennifer’s good fortune was short-lived. Just six years after receiving her mother’s kidney, the new organ began to fail. “We don’t know what caused the failure,” Jennifer notes. “It was not a matter of rejection. That would have happened in the first year or two.” No matter the cause, a biopsy revealed that Jennifer would need another transplant and she was once again placed on the list for a donor organ.
This time, Jennifer’s brother, Michael Weston, stepped forward and offered to be tested as a prospective donor. A medical student at the time, Michael intended to give a kidney to Jennifer during his summer break from classes. But on May 6, the family received a totally unexpected phone call from Hume-Lee Transplant Center. A kidney donor was available and Jennifer was to come to Richmond immediately for surgery. “I couldn’t even reach my brother to tell him that he was off the hook,” remarks Jennifer. The following morning, she had her second kidney transplant.
“I don’t know the identity of my donor,” says Jennifer. “All I know is that he was a deceased male from Missouri who was my exact age and a perfect match —and I was only on the list for a few months. But miracles do happen. I felt like I won the lottery of life. A year after my surgery I was able to write a letter to his family and have it delivered through my transplant coordinator. Although I never heard back, I would like to thank them for this amazing gift of life and let them know that I am healthy and doing well.”
Jennifer is indeed doing well. Dr. Anne King orders blood and urine tests every four months to monitor Jennifer’s kidney function, and so far her new organ is working perfectly. She takes 10 pills every morning and eight each night — the lowest dose of anti-rejection drugs — and a very small price to pay in exchange for an active, vital life. After personally benefitting in such a compelling way from modern medicine, Jennifer decided to devote her career to working as a pharmacy technician for VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital.
Family is an important aspect of Jennifer’s life. “I am very grateful to my mother for sharing a kidney and my brother for being willing to donate as well. Michael exercises regularly and he is a vegetarian and the picture of good health. He has promised to take good care of ‘my’ kidney in case I ever need it,” laughs Jennifer. Knowing that having a child would put her health at risk, Jennifer is completely happy being “mom” to her 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Chloe, and Aunt Jen to her nephew, Logan, age 2,
Giving by nature, Jennifer also enjoys volunteering through her Junior Women’s Club and at a local food pantry, and she takes pride in sharing her transplant story in order to help others. “I’d like to support UNOS [the United Network for Organ Sharing] and encourage people to donate organs. I’m happy to talk to other patients who are facing surgery,” she says. “The thought of having an organ transplant can be very scary and downright depressing. But I am proof there is hope — thanks to the generosity of others who check the box on their driver’s license or offer to be a living donor and give a second chance at life.”
To learn more about being an organ donor, please call the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center at (804) 628-0711 and speak with one of our living donor coordinators.
If you or a loved one needs an organ, contact the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center at (804) 828-4104 or vcuhealth.org/transplant.