Many first-born children sacrifice their summers to care for a younger sibling. But a Tooele woman did more than that this summer — she gave one of her organs to help save her little sister’s life.
Emily Willson, of South Rim, and her sister Heidi Brackett, of Price, Utah, underwent kidney transplant surgery on June 8. It was major surgery for both women, and recovery is still in process, but they are getting through it with a healthy dose of sisterly support they have always shared.
Willson and Brackett grew up in Price, Utah, as bookends in a family of six children. There is a twelve-year age difference between them.
“When my mom went back to work, during the summers especially, I would take care of Heidi. I was her mom,” said Willson, now a fifth-grade teacher at Excelsior Academy in Erda.
Brackett remembers her big sister playing Barbies with her and giving her Otter Pops. “What more could I ask for?” she joked.
Brackett enjoyed a healthy childhood and adolescence, got married, and started a family. She had no idea anything was missing until an ultrasound during her second pregnancy revealed that she had only one kidney.
In many cases this wouldn’t be a problem; people can live healthy lives with one kidney. But not in this case.
When Brackett was pregnant with her third child, testing revealed that her one kidney was functioning at only 25 percent. She said doctors told her that a kidney transplant would definitely be in her future.
The third baby, Benjamin, was born by emergency C-section at 32 weeks of gestation. At the advice of her nephrologist (kidney doctor), Brackett and her husband, Justin, decided to move from Boise back to Price to be close to family as they prepared for the inevitable transplant.
It was the right decision, Brackett said. They have had to rely heavily on support from extended family members.
Before she could have a transplant, Brackett had to go on dialysis. But before that could happen, she underwent four surgeries to prepare her body by establishing access to her blood vessels.
“They had to go in and create a fistula, and that didn’t work, so they had to put in a central line that goes to your jugular vein to be able to do dialysis that way,” Brackett said.
When Brackett was finally ready for dialysis, a new ordeal began.
“You go and do dialysis three days a week for four hours at a time,” she said. “And then you come home and you sleep for another three hours and still try to be a mom for three kids. It wasn’t working at all.”
She was on dialysis for a total of eight months.
Willson watched her sister go through this and knew she could do something to help. Because Brackett had so many siblings, her chances of finding a suitable kidney were greater than average.
Brackett’s siblings argued good-naturedly over who got to donate, Willson said. Three of them went through initial testing, where a computer system decides who will be the best match. The testing takes everything into account, from blood type to every detail of the donor’s health to the kind of support the donor will have after undergoing major surgery.
Once Willson was chosen as the donor, she saw no reason to hesitate in the process.
“Most people take between three and six months to get all their testing done, because it’s just blood draw after blood draw after blood draw,” she said. “… It only took me two months because I knew how hard this was for Heidi and I knew that we needed to get it done as soon as we could so she could be a mom and a wife again.”
After the first two rounds of tests, Willson said, she moved onto the third round, which involved an EKG, an MRI, testing for cancer and STDs, and numerous other scans and tests to determine she was perfectly healthy.
Brackett added, “The manager at the dialysis center said she had never seen anyone start the process and get approved as fast as we did.”
Willson was in a hurry to give her sister her kidney, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t scared.
“The further I got into the testing,” she said, “the more I thought, ‘I could back out, I could still back out.’ The more I learned, the more scared I got. … When it came down to the actual decision, I didn’t want to!”
But Willson’s good friend, Amy Carlson, who had donated a kidney nine years earlier, gave Willson the encouragement she needed to proceed.
Along with her friends’ and family’s support, Willson’s faith pushed her forward.
“I knew that there was a plan, and that it would be OK,” Willson said. “I remember reading the scripture that says ‘greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.’
“That’s when I thought, ‘oh no,’” She laughed. “I knew I had to do it. I knew that I just had to trust that the Lord would take care of both of our families, and he has.”
When the transplant was performed, Brackett noticed an immediate difference when she woke up with her new kidney.
Creatinine is a chemical that shows how the kidneys are functioning. Brackett said a regular creatinine level is .9 and her level was at almost 13 the day of the surgery. The next day, just 24 hours after the transplant, her level was 1.6. This meant the kidney was “happy and thriving.”
“I was really surprised to have it work that quickly,” Willson said. “When they told me how well she was doing, that’s where I lost it. It’s worth it, it’s all worth it!”
The sisters are now well into the recovery phase.
“They told me that I would not be feeling completely recovered for about a year,” said Willson, “but I’m feeling really good right now. I still get really tired, but I’m feeling good.”
Brackett said she’s facing a year of constant bloodwork and many doctor appointments to make sure her medications are working. They will be keeping a close watch to see if her body will reject the kidney, and she’ll stay on anti-rejection drugs for life.
The results of the surgery are obvious.
“It makes a huge difference,” Brackett said. “Now I don’t have to take naps, I can be there for my kids, and I have energy. That never happened before! It’s wonderful.”
Willson said the choice to donate was absolutely the right one.
“I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to do this for her because the amount that I’ve learned and grown has been incredible,” Willson said. “To give a gift like that to someone, it’s … you can’t even talk about it or you start to get teary eyed.”
Brackett agreed it’s hard to talk about it. But one thing the sisters can and do talk about is the urgent need for kidney donation.
“Eight thousand people pass away each year in the United States because they’re waiting for organ donation,” said Brackett. “It matters, it really does matter. You can even donate to someone you’ve never met. They always need more donors.”
“Call the U of U transplant team,” said Willson. “They are absolutely amazing. They change people’s lives.”
Brackett is living proof. She and her husband are planning a family trip to Maine, where he is from, and she looks forward to taking her children camping for the first time ever.