Native leader on the mend

Ex-Sealaska CEO Loescher's condition improves after sister donates a kidney

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

When Bob Loescher resigned as CEO and president of Sealaska Corp. in January, he was in the worst health of his life.

Already nearly blind from diabetes diagnosed two years earlier, the disease also had ravaged his kidneys, and Loescher, 54, was deteriorating fast.

Then last month his sister, Wanda Culp, donated one of her kidneys and changed everything. Loescher, now released from chronic illness and daily dialysis, called the transplant a miracle.

"I'm a new person," said Loescher, who is recovering from the surgery at his North Douglas home. "I have a new opportunity, a new life, and I intend to find a way to do some good with it."

Loescher had enjoyed five decades of good health when he was surprised by a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease.

Within a year Loescher was blind in one eye and had lost most of his vision in the other. Then his kidneys began to fail.

"You cannot believe how important this function is to your existence," Loescher said. "You begin to get sick every day."

The kidneys filter excess waste, chemicals and water from the blood. When the organs fail, patients must get a transplant or go on dialysis to mechanically remove impurities from the body.

Juneau does not have a dialysis center, so Loescher had to clean his system at home using a procedure called peritoneal dialysis, a time-consuming alternative to hemodialysis, a procedure in which impurities are filtered directly from the blood by machine every two days.

Each day every six hours Loescher would drain waste-laden fluid from a sac around his abdominal organs through a tube in his stomach, then pump a liquid solution back into the sac.

"It's a process that takes a lot of time and a lot of patience, but it is a way to provide for a kidney function," Loescher said.

But even with dialysis he was getting worse, and his family members began talking about who would donate a kidney. Culp, his sister, volunteered.

"I instinctively knew all along he and I would be compatible," said Culp, who lives near Hoonah. "I was real anxious that it happen so he could begin healing."

It took months for doctors to confirm that Culp was a suitable donor, and she spent the time trying to boost her health by drinking a tea made from devil's club, a plant revered by Tlingits for its healing powers.

"I even walked into the hospital chewing on the bark," said Culp, 53. "My primary focus was on my kidneys so they would become so strong that my brother wouldn't be able to reject it."

On Oct. 17, the siblings said goodbye at a Seattle hospital and went into surgery.

"I said, 'Here we go Bob - when we join forces we're tough.' Then I told him I love him. We both gave each other a hug," Culp said.

"She seemed very calm through the whole thing and that was reassuring," said Culp's daughter Angel Culp, who lives in Juneau. "I was very nervous."

Culp left the hospital two days later - a feat that amazed the doctors, said Loescher, who returned to Juneau last week. He cannot believe the difference the new kidney has made in his life.

"It's a miracle. All of my chemistry in my body, my toxicity levels, I'm almost normal now," said Loescher, adding that he has to take drugs the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting the organ.

"You cannot believe the change I have with this new kidney."

Loescher plans to start a new career and to be an advocate for a regional dialysis center in Juneau. The Bartlett Regional Hospital Foundation said it will establish one if at least 20 dialysis patients in Southeast contact the organization. So far, only about 10 have done so, said foundation Director Charlotte Richards.

Culp revels in watching her brother regain his health. She flew to Juneau this week to spend the holidays with Loescher and the rest of her family.

"We're a small family already and it's drawn us closer," Culp said. "It's going to be a happy Thanksgiving."

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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