It's often said that the friends you make in college are the friends you keep for life. In the case of 34-year-old Simone Chou, a friend she made in college helped save her life.
In her last year at UC Berkeley, where she was getting a bachelor's degree in nutrition, Chou learned that she had lupus. In lupus, the body's immune system turns against itself, sending antibodies — the body's defenders against viruses, bacteria, and other foreign invaders — to battle against its own tissues. In Chou's case, her immune system was attacking her kidneys, interfering with their role in cleaning waste products from her blood, a condition known as lupus nephritis.
She and her kidney specialist or nephrologist, Dr. Glenn Chertow, tried many different medications to slow or stop the progression of the disease, including two years of chemotherapy. Although the damage to her kidneys seemed to slow, it didn't stop. Nine years later, her doctors told her she'd need dialysis and, eventually, a kidney transplant.
Through it all, Chou kept living her life. She used a type of dialysis called peritoneal dialysis, which allowed her to treat herself instead of going to a dialysis center. She could do most of the treatment at night while she slept, needing just a half hour of treatment during the day. She kept working and even made a cross-country road trip. And in the meantime, she started looking for a kidney donor.
Turns out, she didn't have to look that hard. "A lot of friends and relatives volunteered to get tested to see if they could be a donor," she says. "It was amazing; I wouldn't have thought anyone would have wanted to do it." One of the people who volunteered immediately was Michael Wong. The two were old and good friends, having met in a singing group during Chou's freshman year at UC Berkeley.
Wong had another motivation besides friendship. A practicing Buddhist, he'd read many stories about Buddhist saints who donated their body parts to other people. "When I first heard Simone talk about needing a kidney transplant, I remembered those stories," he says.
After about six months of tests, they learned that Wong would make a good donor, and in February of 2006 they checked in to the UCSF Kidney Transplant Clinic together. Wong would undergo laparascopic donor nephrectomy, which uses tiny cuts and a small camera to take a kidney from a living donor. The procedure has lower complication rates and a shorter recovery time than other methods, and UCSF is one of the most experienced centers in the United States at performing them.
It's major surgery, but both Chou and Wong found it surprisingly trouble-free. "I think the hardest part was before I went under, when they were looking for a vein," says Chou. "I have really terrible veins, and they stuck me three or four times before they found the vein. But once they did, I was out. And I woke up with a new kidney."
Wong woke up to a lot of appreciation from Chou's family and friends — and from the medical staff. "All through the process, I got a very positive vibe from the doctors and nurses," he says. "I was a different kind of patient. Most people are in there because they're fighting for their lives, but I was there to help someone else."
By the second day after surgery, Chou was up and walking around, and on the third day she and Wong went home. Since then, Chou has relished her newfound freedom. "I've become much more active," she says. "And it's so nice to not have to always consider my limitations — because I don't have them anymore." She's started riding her bike more and took up yoga again. Her physically demanding job and the occasional round of yard work no longer exhausts her. And she has a new appreciation for all the family and friends who rallied around her.
As for Wong, other than the gratitude of his old college buddy, the only reminders of his gift are his scars —and he doesn't mind them at all. "I think they're much cooler than a tattoo," he says.
Story written in September of 2008.
Sierra Senyak is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
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