Living

KC woman couldn't save her dad, but her kidney saved his best friend

Donald Burns and Michelle Torgerson share an uncommon bond: Michelle donated a kidney to Donald, her late father’s best friend.
Donald Burns and Michelle Torgerson share an uncommon bond: Michelle donated a kidney to Donald, her late father’s best friend. deulitt@kcstar.com

Michelle Torgerson was pregnant with triplets when her dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

John Iennaccaro, a stubborn Italian-American auto executive, lived long enough to meet the babies and to go on one last deer hunt with his best friend, Donald Burns. He died 18 years ago at the age of 50.

Michelle, who lives in Kansas City, would have done anything to save her dad. But she couldn’t give him a pancreas, and because of his cancer, John wasn’t eligible for a transplant from a deceased donor.

So two years ago, when Michelle found out that Donald needed a kidney and that he shared her blood type, the mother of four became determined to give him one of hers.

“I was going to do it,” she says. “I love him that much.”

The life-saving gift brought the two families even closer together.

“John was as close as any brother,” Donald says. “I can’t think of a family I’d rather be a part of.”

Since their successful transplant in 2014, Michelle and Donald have becoming advocates for living donation. Their story of love, friendship and sacrifice is fitting for Valentine’s Day, which, not coincidentally, is also National Donor Day.

An unlikely friendship

Donald didn’t immediately like John.

Donald, a retired farmer who lives in Pattonsburg, Mo., met John through a mutual friend. John would often come up from Kansas City to hunt deer and turkey on Donald’s land.

“Here’s a guy from the city who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty,” Donald remembers thinking.

But John wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves. He would help out with farm chores and cook bacon-and-egg breakfasts for the other hunters. One time, when a combine broke down, the auto executive crawled underneath it to find the problem, even though he’d never worked on farm machinery before.

“He was right under it, you betcha,” Donald says.

His friends call him “a character” who loved to sing, dance and pull pranks. He was also a workaholic with a quick temper. Sometimes he’d boil over when his friends teased him for walking like a duck.

Over the years, Donald and John became like brothers, and their families intertwined.

The men were “almost clones,” says Sandy Iennaccaro, John’s wife.

“Very stubborn, headstrong and determined, like my daughter.”

After John got sick, he insisted on one last hunting trip. He was weak, so his friends rigged a stand to help hold his gun.

When he died a month later, the Burns family felt as though they’d lost one of their own.

“It was a sad time,” says Kathy, Donald’s wife. “You saw this guy who was bigger than life itself, and then you saw it drain right out of him.”

Family ties

John was the link between the Iennaccaro and Burns families, but the link didn’t die with him.

Donald became like a second father to Michelle, her brother John and sister Lisa. He and Kathy attended Michelle’s oldest son’s high school graduation and regularly invited her family to hunt and fish on their land.

In 2013, Donald went in for a routine checkup and was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney disease. Despite his family history — his mother had been on dialysis, and his brother received a kidney transplant from a deceased donor — the news came as a huge shock.

“It was like the world crumbled a bit that day,” Kathy says.

Donald needed a new kidney. Kathy and his two daughters wanted to donate but were ineligible because they didn’t share his blood type. And Donald wasn’t eligible to join the national waiting list for organ donation until his kidney function dropped below 20 percent.

Even those who are able to join the waiting list aren’t guaranteed a transplant. According to the American Transplant Foundation, more than 123,000 Americans are on the list, and another name is added every 12 minutes. On average, 21 people die every day waiting for an organ.

By early 2014, Donald and Kathy were resigned to the idea that he would need dialysis, a treatment that filters and purifies the blood with a machine. Their plan was for him to do it from home, four times a day, which would allow him more time with their five grandchildren.

Donald didn’t tell many people outside of his immediate family about his illness.

“My dad’s a very private person,” explains daughter Gina Burns. “He doesn’t want people worrying about him.”

When Gina asked him if she could start a Facebook page called “A Kidney for Grandpa,” he begrudgingly agreed. She filled the page with photos of Donald smiling with his grandkids and inspirational quotes such as “Never give up. This may be your moment for a miracle.”

Miracle in motion

Michelle had her blood type tested almost immediately after she saw the Facebook page. Because she works in a medical facility as an ultrasound technologist, it didn’t take long.

When she found out she was the matching type O, she sent Gina a Facebook message saying she wanted to donate. Donald was floored by the offer, but it took a while for him to accept it. He cared for her like a daughter, and she had four kids of her own.

“I didn’t want to say no,” Donald says, “but I didn’t want to say yes.”

He insisted on driving to Kansas City to meet with Michelle’s family before accepting her offer. He wanted to make sure that everyone was on board, that they understood what they were signing up for.

Every year, more than 5,000 people in the United States become living kidney donors. According to the National Kidney Registry, the transplant surgery has a 90 to 95 percent success rate, but it does have risks, including infection, allergic reaction to anesthesia and death. The mortality rate is .03 percent, or about three out of every 10,000.

Kidneys from living donors last an average of 26.6 years, about twice as long as those from deceased donors. Donating a kidney has not been shown to shorten life expectancy. Donors who experience renal failure later in life get a top spot on the organ waiting list.

Michelle’s medical background helped prepare her for donation.

“Needle pokes and scars and surgery didn’t deter me in any way,” she says.

Her kids and her husband, Jerry, stood behind her all the way.

“There’s a risk to everything you do in life, all the time,” Jerry says. “We were willing to take that risk to save Donald’s life.”

The gift of life

It took months for Michelle to complete all the tests required of a kidney donor.

In addition to blood testing and tissue typing, there were X-rays, antibody screening tests and psychological exams.

Living donors are screened by social workers to make sure they’re emotionally prepared for surgery and recovery.

“I also want to make sure they have a good support system,” says Lisa Claudel, family services coordinator for the Midwest Transplant Network.

Most kidney donors are biologically related to the recipient, but about one out of every four is not. Claudel says it’s common for people to choose to donate anonymously after finding out they’re not a match for a family member or friend.

Michelle says that if things hadn’t worked out with Donald, she would have donated her kidney to someone else.

“I think you become obsessed as a donor,” she says. “You start the process, and you find out how many people could live a long, healthy life if they just had a kidney.”

Michelle got confirmation that the transplant had been approved on a hot summer day. She and her kids got snow cones to celebrate.

Donald knew there was no changing her mind.

“She’s just like her dad,” he says.

“We were both in awe,” Kathy says, “just astounded that anybody would go that far for us. She’s an angel.”

The surgery was scheduled for Oct. 1, 2014, at Research Medical Center. In late September, Michelle and Donald brought their families together at a Chiefs game and tailgated with kidney bean chili.

Everyone was nervous going into surgery, but it was a success. As soon as Donald was strong enough to walk, he hobbled into Michelle’s room, his feet sticking out like a duck’s.

“That Iennaccaro blood’s already goin’ through my system,” he told her.

The road to recovery

Recovering from the surgery was easy for Donald, who didn’t take any of the pain medication his doctors sent home with him.

Within a week, he had lost 25 pounds thanks to his new kidney, which eliminated excess fluid from his body. The color came back to his skin. He could walk comfortably again and fit into shoes he hadn’t been able to wear in months.

Michelle’s surgery was more invasive, so recovery took longer. She dealt with discomfort and fatigue but was able to return to work after five weeks.

“It was a lot rougher than I thought it was going to be,” Michelle says, adding that she would do it all over again if she had to.

Although the surgery was a success, Donald has faced a couple of health setbacks caused by the immunosuppressant drugs that keep his body from rejecting the kidney. The drugs make him more susceptible to viruses and diseases such as skin cancer. He has to avoid crowds, shaking hands at church and the sun.

Kathy retired from her job as business manager with the Missouri Department of Corrections to help him keep track of medications and appointments. She also helps Donald, who is diabetic, with insulin shots and blood sugar tests.

Kathy and Michelle talk daily via texts, and their families get together whenever they can.

“There’s this common understanding that we’ll always be there for each other no matter what,” Michelle says.

When they get together, they often talk about John.

“He would be so proud of Michelle that his buttons would pop off his shirt,” Kathy says.

“I think he’d be happy,” Michelle says.

“And probably, he had a hand in it.”

Donating life

For more information about living donation, or to register to become a donor, contact the Midwest Transplant Network by calling 913-262-1668 or visiting MWTN.org.

▪ Feb. 14 is National Donor Day, a holiday that celebrates those who have helped save or enhance other people’s lives by donating blood, marrow, tissue or organs.

▪ More than 123,000 Americans are on a waiting list for an organ transplant. About 7 percent of those people, or more than 6,500 each year, die before they receive a transplant.

▪ One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and can save or enhance more than 100 lives through tissue donation.

▪ A healthy person can become a living donor by donating blood, bone marrow, a kidney or part of the liver, lung or intestine.

▪ More than 6,000 living donations occur every year in the United States.

▪ Kidney transplant surgery is the most successful organ transplant surgery, with a success rate of 90-95 percent.

▪ Most living donors donate to a family member, but about one in four is not biologically related to the recipient.

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