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Local family promotes Donor Sabbath

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Less than a year ago, local native Christopher Lechuga had his life turned around by a relatively little-known medical procedure known as “live-donation” organ transplantation.

Thanks to a brave decision by a family friend, he avoided years of disruptive kidney dialysis treatments while waiting for a donor, and got his life back on track.

And today, his family and their supporters have become advocates of the procedure, helping to spread the word about it to others who may benefit, too.



The ordeal began for Chris in August of 2008, when he was diagnosed with kidney-failure. An attempted transplant from a family member was unsuccessful, and by early 2010, the future looked bleak.

But then a family friend stepped up to volunteer one of her kidneys, and things took a turn for the better.



For Chris, 26, and his wife, Christi, who live in Colorado Springs, life is now “back to normal, really,” he said.

He can take walks, go out at night, play with his two dachshunds in a park, all the things he could not do for so long.

Living donation involves a transplant from a living donor, as opposed to “deceased donation” in which an organ comes from someone who has died.

This weekend is National Donor Sabbath, a three-day, faith-based campaign to raise awareness for both types of organ donations, and of the up to 120,000 people nationwide awaiting news that a life-giving organ has become available.

Christopher’s mother, Kathy Springer-Lechuga of Glenwood Springs, told the Post Independent that there are four churches in the area where the pastors planned to include the Donor Sabbath in their sermons this weekend.

Those participating area churches are the First Presbyterian and First United Methodist in Glenwood Springs, The Orchard in Carbondale and Fellowship of the Rockies in Rifle. Three other churches in Front Range cities also are participating.

Chris underwent his living donation surgical procedure at the end of 2010.

“Everything’s working well,” he told the Post Independent, and his life has returned to normal after several very difficult years.

Christopher was 23 when he learned his kidneys had failed, in August of 2008. Immediately, he began undergoing 12 hours per week of dialysis.

The treatments went on for more than two years, until two days before the surgery, on Dec. 21, 2010.

Dialysis, he explained, is an expensive and highly disruptive treatment regimen that usually takes place at a hospital. There, a machine removes wastes and excess water from the blood stream that normally would be cleaned by the kidneys.

The need to be always close to dialysis testament facilities – the treatment is not available in Garfield County – had Chris and his wife feeling tied down and frustrated.

He was looking at several years more of dialysis treatments, said his mom. A five-year wait is typical for a kidney recipient on the national donor list, Springer-Lechuga added.

But then Springer-Lechuga’s long time friend and coworker, Michelle Cole, stepped up and offered to donate her kidney to Chris.

“I had seen this go on from day one,” Cole said, recalling her feelings of compassion. “So I said, hey, I can do that.”

The two women are accountants at the Reynolds Company in Glenwood Springs, and had worked together on an event to raise money for Christopher’s medical costs.

Cole, who was 42 at the time, said it took nearly seven months of testing before she got the green light to donate a kidney to Christopher.

“Usually, testing is about six weeks,” she remarked. The medical teams were “very, very thorough,” she said, because they did not wish to endanger her or Chris.

“As a mom, I couldn’t imagine going through this,” Cole remarked on Thursday about her co-worker’s anxiety.

And, she said, the difference in ages did not bother Chris.

“So, he’s got an older kidney,” she said jokingly. “I don’t think he’s too concerned about that.”

The surgery took place at Porter’s Adventist Hospital in Denver, on Dec. 21, 2010, and the two were discharged only two days later, which the doctors said was unusual, Chris recalled.

“As soon as they hooked it up, it started producing urine,” he said of his new organ. “It was about as good as you can ask for, in terms of surgery.”

The whole family was nervous about the ordeal, Chris said, including his dachshunds, Oscar and Bella.

“They were kind of sad while I was in the hospital,” he said. “They didn’t know where I went.”

Cole, for her part, said she was not particularly worried going into the surgery.

“I am a very strong believer in God,” Cole said, “and just prayed throughout this whole thing.”

Today, Chris said, his life is normal again, although he remains somewhat amazed by the process and the results.

“It’s weird to think how easily somebody else’s body part fits into my body,” he commented.

Noting that he works for an automotive dealer, where finding parts for repairing cars is a routine part of the business, he said, “It’s kind of the same way with people.”

For Cole, the experience has been an eye-opener.

“There’s a risk with any surgery,” said Cole. She talked it over with her two sons and husband, Brent Cole, before going ahead.

“They were concerned,” she conceded, but after talking it out, “they thought it was cool.”

Other than the surgery, she expected no problems, and experienced none.

“The risks after that are pretty minimal,” she continued. “One kidney does 90 percent of what two kidneys do, it’s not a sudden drop of 50 percent of kidney function.”

Dialysis, she noted, only does about 30 percent of the cleaning job performed by a normal kidney.

She said it took four to six weeks for her to get all her energy back, but she has not had to change her diet or her behavior other than staying away from certain over-the-counter medications that might interfere with her one remaining kidney.

Generally, she said, “to see the change in Christopher, obviously, that helped the healing process. Immediately, you could tell it was working and he felt better.”

And, she said, it was “an honor to be able to change somebody’s life in that way.”

For Springer-Lechuga and for Cole, a significant part of their passion today is devoted to getting the word out about the need for living donors.

Because there is no “shut-down time” such as occurs when a donor dies, said Cole, the organ is not traumatized prior to the surgery.

As for the donor’s health, Cole said, as far as she is concerned there is no negative effect.

“I am healthy enough to climb Aspen Mountain with ‘Summit for Life’ for the Chris Klug foundation on Dec. 10,” she noted proudly, calling the climb “a good way to celebrate coming up on the one-year anniversary” of the surgery.

Springer-Lechuga is promoting National Donor Sabbath, she said, because living donation “is really important to us. We have seen what live donation can do.”

Some 90,000 people are on the wait-list for a kidney, and the transplant list in general stands at 120,000, according to information from the American Transplant Foundation.

This year, Springer-Lechuga said, is the first time that live donations have been a centerpiece of the foundation’s annual awareness campaign.

“We’re all very aware that living donations can cut down this list considerably,” she said of the wait list. “It might be someone you’re working with, someone in the next store over, who can help. And we can all live with one kidney.”

More information about the issue is available online at americantransplantfoundation.org or by calling 303-757-0959.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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