Kidney Transplant: Interview with a Kidney Transplant Patient
Guest: Don Holzheimer – Kidney Transplant Recipient
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry, MUSC
Dr. Linda Austin: Don Holzheimer has a very special story to tell. He has received a kidney transplant. And, Don, let’s have you tell your story, really, thinking about that person out there who will be listening to this because they, or someone they love, will getting a kidney transplant. First of all, how old were you when you were told you were going to need a transplant?
Don Holzheimer: I was 41.
Dr. Linda Austin: And, as I understand it, you had been suffering, to some degree, for many years with low-level kidney problems that became quite severe in the last few months before your transplant.
Don Holzheimer: That’s absolutely true. In 1992, I was diagnosed with chronic renal failure, which means that my kidneys were slowly deteriorating. They, actually, didn’t know the cause. I had biopsies, and different tests, done to pinpoint the cause of my kidney failure, and they’re not really sure. I think one of the things that may have contributed is that I had undiagnosed high blood pressure for such a long period of time, which actually started doing some serious damage to my kidneys.
So, I started seeing a nephrologist in 1992. And, for the most part, my lab levels, they were generally on the high side. But they were on the maintained high side. So, there was a lot of fluctuation in my lab results. However, in 2006, that’s when the ball really dropped. And, at that point, I was only seeing my doctors semi-annually, because everything was maintained so well. At the end of 2006, I went to see my doctor for my regular appointment. They did a blood draw, and my creatinine level was about ten times the norm. So, that was a clear indication that something was seriously wrong with my kidneys.
Dr. Linda Austin: Now, at that time, you went on dialysis? Is that right?
Don Holzheimer: I did. That’s correct.
Dr. Linda Austin: What is dialysis like?
Don Holzheimer: Oh, boy. Well, dialysis, at the beginning, is actually not too terribly bad. To receive dialysis, a catheter is inserted, with a of couple tubes hanging off your chest. That’s how they hook you up to the machine in the initial stages of dialysis. It’s not the best means for dialysis, because there’s a lot of opportunity for infection. It’s difficult to keep the tubing clean.
Later on, after you’ve started dialysis, you undergo fistula surgery. Essentially, what happens with the fistula is that they connect an artery and a vein in your forearm or upper arm. Then, the amount of blood that begins to circulate through the vessel strengthens it. If you just use a regular vein, it would eventually collapse, because the wall isn’t strong enough to get stuck [with a needle] many times. With dialysis, you basically go three times a week, with an average of four hours per treatment. With the fistula, they build up that vein and it can eventually handle the rigors of dialysis.
Dr. Linda Austin: Now, the experience of being on the dialysis machine, is it comfortable?
Don Holzheimer: Wow. I thought the seat was the most uncomfortable thing, ever! The chair was most uncomfortable. But, I don’t know. You just kind of deal with it; at least I did. The worst part of dialysis is the very beginning, because you get stuck with the needles. But once you’re kind of into your flow, everything seems to be okay. It’s actually pretty hard to get comfortable, because you can’t move around a lot. If you move around, the machine will alarm, and different things can happen. The needles can move. So, you have to try to sit still for an extended period of time. It’s actually pretty hard to do. Some days are a little bit more uncomfortable than others.
When I was on dialysis, I was working at night. So, right after work, I would go in for dialysis. I always had the hope that I’d be able to just go in there and sleep; after working all night, but it never happened. I don’t know if was just because of the atmosphere.
Dr. Linda Austin: Now, how about your kidney transplant procedure? I know you got a kidney from your brother.
Don Holzheimer: That’s correct.
Dr. Linda Austin: Incredible gift. What was the surgery like for you? Was it difficult?
Don Holzheimer: Actually, the day of surgery, I was really at peace. I didn’t, really, have too many worries. I think the biggest thing I joked about was that they might drop it on the floor, have to clean it off, and put then put it in me. But, basically, the day of surgery, I was pretty much at peace.
It was just amazing, the day of surgery. The donor goes first. So, my brother went into surgery first. It was just unbelievable. I was in there for several hours; six to eight hours, but it seemed like two or three minutes. I remember when I laid down on the table, it was freezing cold. Then, when they put the warm blanket on me, I spoke to the nurse for about two minutes. And, the next thing I remembered, I had woken up in intensive care, and it was already done.
Dr. Linda Austin: And, how about the recovery period? Was that difficult, or did it go smoothly?
Don Holzheimer: It wasn’t too bad. I can remember my second day in the hospital. My doctor said: Well, we don’t want you just sitting around in here. We want you to get up and start moving around. The very first day, the toughest thing was trying to sit up. When you have a kidney transplant, they don’t remove the nonfunctioning kidneys unless they’re cancerous, or there’s some other risk if left in. So, basically, I have three kidneys right now; two that don’t work, and one that works.
So, the toughest part is, they have to cut through the muscles in your abdomen, in order to implant the donated kidney. It’s actually placed frontally, instead of in the back. So, sitting up, oh, it was excruciatingly painful. It was really tough to sit up. But, once I got up, I was able to stand up. Then, it was just fine. But, the very first day that I did try to walk, I walked, maybe, a distance of six to eight feet. I thought, okay, that’s enough.
Dr. Linda Austin: Wow.
Don Holzheimer: So, I was in the hospital for about five days, and then went home. I really tried hard to walk a little bit more every day. And, about three months after surgery, I was walking about five miles.
Dr. Linda Austin: And you look like a truly vigorous, strapping, muscular, guy.
Don Holzheimer: Well, I try.
Dr. Linda Austin: Clearly, you’ve gotten back. It must have been very exciting when starting peeing like a normal person again.
Don Holzheimer: That’s true. That’s very true.
Dr. Linda Austin: Now, you mentioned, I think, earlier, that you’re on a lot of immunosuppressant drugs.
Don Holzheimer: That’s correct.
Dr. Linda Austin: Do they cause you problems?
Don Holzheimer: Actually, I haven’t had any real side effects as far as the drugs are concerned. The most important thing is just sticking to the drug regimen; to protect that kidney. If I didn’t take the immunosuppressant drugs, my body would perceive a foreign body, and my immune system would attack the donor kidney and cause it to fail. So, as far as the medications are concerned, everything has been great.
Dr. Linda Austin: And, your general health; energy, everything, is okay?
Don Holzheimer: Oh, yes. It’s phenomenal, actually.
Dr. Linda Austin: What do you work as, Don?
Don Holzheimer: I’m a pharmacy tech here, at MUSC, in the adult inpatient pharmacy.
Dr. Linda Austin: Oh, that’s fantastic. And, do you have family?
Don Holzheimer: My family lives in Ohio.
Dr. Linda Austin: I see.
Don Holzheimer: I moved down here in 2008 to attend school. And, after school, I was able to land a job here, at MUSC.
Dr. Linda Austin: Well, we’re lucky to have you in our community. Thanks so much for sharing your story.
Don Holzheimer: Thank you.
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