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Far from home, Douglas resident Troy Kahklen received an incredible present for his 47th birthday Thursday: Doctors doubled his life expectancy with a five-hour transplant surgery that gave him a new kidney.
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Within hours of the paired kidney transplant, his body began to filter blood on its own for the first time in 13 years.
Kahklen lost kidney function in 1991 after Lupus, an autoimmune disease, destroyed it. A previous transplant lasted for two years before slowly failing.
Friday, from his recovery bed, Kahklen said he was still a little sore from the surgery, but more than satisfied with his special gift. Having only begun to consider his new life, Kahklen teared up and said, "I'm so grateful for all the help."
Kahklen's new kidney came in a roundabout way after Juneau resident Ray Vidic decided four years ago to donate one of his kidneys and give the gift of life.
An old-fashioned problem stood in the way. Vidic's blood and tissue type did not match Kahklen's. Incompatibility ruled out a direct transplant.
The pair sought a relatively new solution at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In 2001 the doctors at Hopkins pioneered what basically amounts to a kidney dating service. Incompatible transplant pairs like Kahklen and Vidic are matched with others in the same incompatible boat, and within the larger pool of donors, compatibility is found.
"Most people don't know they have a life beyond dialysis," Vidic said. He said there are 10 dialysis patients in Juneau that don't know of the possibility. "That's just Juneau."
Kahklen and Vidic were joined by two other pairs and six surgical teams for a day of surgery that left three people with hope for freedom and longevity.
Vidic said people with transplanted kidneys statistically live twice as long as those who rely on dialysis machines to clean their blood.
A local fundraiser contributed $23,000 for the overall process through the National Transplant Association Fund. Keith Kahklen said his brother Troy was amazed.
"People in Juneau were so willing to help," he said.
Kahklen said he didn't know the exact cost of the surgery, but that much of the surgery was paid for by Medicare. In a game of medical dollars, Kahklen said transplant surgery is cheaper in the long run than dialysis.
A National Geographic film crew documented the six-way surgery for a special that will appear on PBS in January.
On Thursday, Kahklen received a kidney from a Georgia donor as another person from Georgia received Vidic's kidney.
Kahklen said he expects to meet his actual donor on Monday when everyone involved joins together and celebrates the victory.
Vidic is fond of sports analogies and described Hopkins as the Chicago Bulls in their 1990s heyday, "a world class team." He said Kahklen's surgeon is the Michael Jordan of kidney transplant surgeons.
"I continue to be amazed at the quality of care," he said.
Vidic's overarching advice about medical care is simple: "Seek the best."
As for life after his surgery, Vidic said the body really only needs 40 percent of one kidney.
"I have 100 percent," he said.
In terms of longevity, Vidic has no fear of the effects. Kidney donors outlive non donors.
"We tend to be healthier," Vidic said. "I was screened like an astronaut."
In addition to additional years of life, Kahklen gets a month of free time with each passing year that would have otherwise been consumed by five-hour dialysis sessions that remove 8-10 pounds of waste and fluid from his blood.
"Dialysis just takes the stuffing out of me," he said. "I hope to feel stronger and have more stamina."
With the extra time and energy, Kahklen hopes to return to working full time.
Vidic said if recovery goes well he will return to Juneau next weekend, but that Kahklen will stay near Hopkins longer and remain close to his medical team for safety reasons.
Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org