Sister's Sacrifice : Giving thanks for normal life

    Jo Ann Villanueva can enjoy holidays thanks to a kidney donated by
her sister

    By Alice Hohl[0]

    Staff writer

     Sister's Sacrifice : Occasional series chronicling a living organ

    This Thanksgiving, Jo Ann Villanueva is thankful for her new addition
-- a donated kidney she has named "Little Sue" -- and because she will
actually be able to eat most of Thanksgiving dinner.

    Last month Jo Ann received a kidney from her sister Suzanne Ruff
during a transplant operation.

    As a result, Jo Ann no longer spends every other evening at a
dialysis center. She can drink water until she isn't thirsty anymore. And
she can eat foods with high potassium and phosphorus levels to her heart's

    The Daily Southtown followed Jo Ann, Suzanne and their families
through the transplant process, describing Jo Ann's struggle with
polycystic kidney disease, detailing life on dialysis and spending the day
of surgery with the family.

    Jo Ann and Suzanne said they are both recovering well after one
month, but neither is back at work yet.

    Living in different states -- Suzanne in Minnesota and Jo Ann in Oak
Forest -- the sisters are sharing some symptoms and feelings.

    Both have tender, swollen bellies that make it impossible to wear
their "pre-transplant" pants.

    Both are happy they made it through the surgery and that Suzanne's
kidney is functioning perfectly in Jo Ann's belly.

    Both believe everyone who will spend time with their families today
should make sure to tell their relatives if they want to be an organ

    Jo Ann has said repeatedly she wishes Suzanne did not have to endure
surgery and its effects in order to help her, but the wait for a kidney
from a deceased donor is more than four years. The demand for donor
kidneys grows each year, but the number of donors has not grown at all.

    Signing donor card just one step

    Suzanne knows a woman who lives near her in Minnesota whose husband
died suddenly, and she did not donate his organs. Two weeks later she
found out he had signed his organ donor card and felt bad about the
decision she made.

    "I said to my husband, Bill, 'How could she not know he was an organ
donor?' but he said most families probably are not aware of organ donation
the way we are," Suzanne said.

    Even if a person has signed a driver's license or otherwise indicated
they want to donate upon their death, medical workers must have the
permission of the surviving spouse or relative.

    On Wednesday, Jo Ann was working on thank-you notes for all the gifts
and flowers she has received. In some, she is enclosing a small card that
reads, "So you think you're an organ donor? Not if you haven't told your

    "When you're around family, like at Thanksgiving, it doesn't have to
be a morbid topic," Jo Ann said. "Just say, 'By the way, I signed my organ
donor card.' "

    Suzanne said her way of coping with giving up one of her kidneys also
can help people think positively about being an organ donor.

    "This is my body, but you really don't keep your body forever," she
said. "You don't take your jewelry when you leave this world, and you
don't take your kidney.

    "It's not really your kidney; it's just a kidney to use while you're
in this world."

    Suzanne said a worker at Northwestern Memorial Hospital asked her to
sign a release to allow a photo of her kidney during Jo Ann's surgery.

    "I said, 'See, it's not really my kidney. Why do I need to sign
this?' "

    Each year, dozens of patients anxiously waiting for organs miss out
when families of organ donors don't grant permission for organ donation.

    "These people had signed donor cards, but their families refused,"
Suzanne said.

    "That's why the family has to be informed, has to be all in
agreement. This is a perfect time of year to talk about it because
families are all together."

    Living donation no walk in the park

    Deceased donors are important because being a living donor can be
difficult, Suzanne said.

    Although the transplant went well, Suzanne battled nausea and pain.
She still tires easily.

    "I'm not complaining, though, because I'm so happy I woke up," she
said, laughing.

    Since living donors are so carefully screened, most are in excellent
health when they undergo surgery, which means they often feel terrible
coming out of surgery compared with the recipient, who wasn't feeling
great to begin with.

    "Probably for most donors, they're not used to being sick," she said.

    "The donor goes in feeling really healthy and comes out feeling
really (awful).

    "The recipient goes in and right away feels better."

    A week after the surgery, Jo Ann's blood work was about as good as
Suzanne's, which showed the donor kidney was working great.

    "I just find that to be truly miraculous," she said.

    But Suzanne said she bristles at suggestions the donor surgery is no
big deal.

    "It is truly the hardest thing I've done in my life," she said.

    "Every day now I think of people in the hospital," she said.

    "When they say pray for the sick, I think about it, and I really do
pray for them.

    "I learned a lot of compassion and sympathy for people who are ill."

    Thankful dialysis is over

    On Wednesday, Jo Ann sat in her living room surrounded by get-well
cards, balloons and boxes of chocolate. She was not allowed to eat
chocolate during the year she required dialysis treatments.

    She said she hopes she does not become too emotional today during the
Thanksgiving celebration.

    "I felt good enough on dialysis," Jo Ann said, "but I'm back to my
old life. It's wonderful."

    Jo Ann takes more than a dozen pills a day, amounting to more than
$1,000 in prescription bills each month, but she said it's much better
than going straight from work to dialysis and straight from dialysis to
bed three days a week.

    Missing time with her daughters, Katie, 21, and Kristina, 25, was

    "The best part of not being on dialysis is being able to talk to
Katie anytime I want," rather than putting off phone calls to Katie's
college until the weekend, she said.

    Jo Ann also gets to spend time with Kristina, who lives at home, and
her husband, Dave.

    Suzanne said seeing her sister doing well makes her happy.

    "I think she's been doing better than I was doing for awhile, and I
was thinking, 'That's not fair,' but then recipients have so much more to
be euphoric about, I can understand it."

    Suzanne jokes with her sister, telling her the kidney is used to tea
and blueberries, her favorites.

    Jo Ann said she is doing her best, drinking a cup of tea every day
and eating blueberry-flavored waffles.

    Suzanne's remaining kidney is expected to be doing the work of two
kidneys in two months.

    Jo Ann will continue to take anti-rejection medication for the rest
of her life, but she will be able to stop taking some of the pills and
treatments as her health improves. She hopes to return to work at Oak
Forest High School at the end of December.

    Both give thanks today, and hope for an even greater gift in the
future: an endless supply of donors and a cure for polycystic kidney

    Their father, John Gill of Orland Park, volunteers and raises money
for PKD.

    His wife and two of his three daughters were diagnosed with PKD,
which often leads to kidney failure.

    His wife, Joan, died in 2003 after living with a donated kidney for
15 years. Daughter Janice received a transplant from a deceased donor, and
now Jo Ann has received a transplant from her sister.

    "I just wish they would find a cure in my dad's lifetime because he
feels like it's his mission," Jo Ann said.

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