Willmar woman donates kidney to stepbrother

WILLMAR -- Growing up, Sara Hanson didn't have much chance to get to know her older stepbrother, Chris Wirth. It took two kidneys -- one ailing and one healthy -- to bring them closer together. Hanson, 25, donated one of her kidneys last month to...

WILLMAR -- Growing up, Sara Hanson didn't have much chance to get to know her older stepbrother, Chris Wirth.

It took two kidneys -- one ailing and one healthy -- to bring them closer together.

Hanson, 25, donated one of her kidneys last month to Wirth.

"It needed to be done, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt if it were the other way around, he would do it for me," she said.

The surgery took place March 16 at Methodist Hospital in Rochester, making Hanson one of about 7,000 Americans each year who become living organ donors.


Wirth, 31, developed diabetes in his late teens. The disease turned out to be challenging to treat and manage. By this past December, his kidneys had sustained so much damage they were functioning at only 17 percent of their capacity. A transplant was suggested; without it, her stepbrother could expect to live another three to five years, Hanson said.

Time was critical, though. Wirth's family knew he might spend three to five years on the waiting list before a matching kidney could be found.

In hopes of speeding the process, a search was launched among relatives and friends for a potential living donor.

Hanson knew that although she and her brother aren't genetically related, they had the same blood type. She decided to talk to her husband, Adam, and her parents about the possibility of donating one of her kidneys to Wirth.

At first Wirth was reluctant to even consider it. He worried about his sister's future health and the future of her three children, ages 6, 4 and 1. "He definitely didn't want me to donate," Hanson said.

The clock was ticking, however, and it appeared the family had little to lose by having Hanson undergo screening for donor eligibility.

"He didn't have that many choices," Hanson said. "I wasn't sure he had anybody else, and I knew our blood types matched."

Two days of intensive testing at Mayo Clinic in Rochester this past January revealed that Hanson's kidneys were a match for Wirth and that she was healthy enough to donate one of them.


"That was the hardest thing for me -- waiting to see if I was a match," she said. "I think that's when Chris and I got to know each other best."

Things began moving forward rapidly. The transplant surgery was scheduled for Valentine's Day, then called off after Hanson developed a strep infection and quickly rescheduled for the following month.

In a two-hour surgery on March 16, one of Hanson's healthy kidneys was removed so that it could be transplanted into Wirth.

It wasn't until Hanson saw him after the surgery that it hit home how sick he had been.

As his kidneys had begun to fail, he had become extremely fatigued. His complexion was yellow-gray. Almost immediately after the transplant, however, Wirth's new kidney began functioning. His skin turned a healthy pink.

"Chris is very stubborn and very tough. He wouldn't admit how miserable he was," Hanson said. "We see him all the time. I didn't realize how bad he looked."

One month after his transplant, Wirth is home in Waseca and doing well. Hanson is back full time to her job as a special education paraprofessional at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar.

About 16,500 kidney transplants were performed in the United States last year. It is the most successful type of major organ transplant; 96 percent of people who receive a kidney are still alive one year later. It's also the most common transplant surgery, accounting for more than half of all transplants done in the U.S. each year.


The number of living donors has grown slowly but steadily over the past decade. It's now possible for living donors to give one of their kidneys, a lobe of their lung or liver, or a portion of the pancreas.

Still, the demand for organ donation far exceeds the supply: As of March, the United Network for Organ Sharing listed 91,000 people on the national waiting list for organ transplants.

Hanson said the experience of donating a kidney to her stepbrother has heightened her knowledge of the role that living donors can play.

Her driver's license had already listed her as an organ donor. But before Wirth's transplant, "I knew nothing," she said. "I have learned so much."

Laparoscopic techniques have reduced the need for open surgery to recover a kidney from a living donor. Hanson was left with a four-inch incision and was able to leave the hospital in three days.

"My life is going to go completely back to normal. I can still have children. There's nothing you can't do afterwards," she said. "In the grand scheme of surgeries, it's been an inconvenience. Other than being tired awhile, it's not bad."

Hanson said she wants the public to be more aware of the need for organ donation and the possibility of becoming a living donor.

"I find myself wanting to tell people," she said. "I'd like more people to think about living donation. It's not for everybody, but it's really an amazing thing to do."

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