Fishers resident Carlie Oakley had known for a long time that she might need a kidney transplant someday. She didn’t know when that might be, though, and she definitely couldn’t predict that the donor would be her close friend, Jenny Deppen.
Oakley was 16, and like many teenagers was taking acne medication at the time. But then her creatinine levels — which indicate kidney health — became extremely elevated. That’s when doctors discovered she had been born with only one kidney.
That’s not a problem when that kidney is healthy.
“But when I was 23, I was diagnosed with Epstein Barr virus, and it took them about a year to figure out what was going on with me,” she said. “And that happens to be the kind of mono that causes lesions in your kidney. So, by the time they figured it out, my (kidney function) percentage had gone down quite a bit.”
Then she had children, which can take a toll on kidney function, too. With her first child, Meryn, her one kidney went down to 50 percent. When she had her second child, Gage, it dropped to 22 percent.
“And 20 is when you go on the donor list,” she said.
Oakley worked with a homeopathic doctor to bring her kidney function back up and was able to go 11 years without dropping to that 20 percent threshold, but then her function went down again. Although Oakley never had to undergo dialysis, she definitely needed a new kidney.
Deppen and a group of Oakley’s friends had known about Oakley’s health concerns.
“Initially, when she told me I always thought, ‘Oh, sure. I’ll get tested for that.’ Not really thinking too much about it or knowing anything that was involved,” Deppen said. “So, she sent a text — we have a fantastic friend group. They’re very supportive, but she sent out a text to us just giving us kind of background information but … she didn’t ask anyone, obviously, because I think that’s a hard thing to ask for. You’re not asking for a cup of sugar.”
But Deppen and many of those friends signed up for testing to see if they were a good match. Deppen said other than worrying about the surgery itself, she wasn’t concerned about giving up a kidney.
“I just hoped that I had a healthy kidney to give,” she said. “So, I think my biggest concern was, we were going to do all this testing. We’re going to give her this kidney. And it was going to be a lemon.”
The testing process was thorough, though. When the donor is living, there’s time to make sure it’s as good a match as possible. From the start of testing to the day the match was confirmed took about four months. But Deppen didn’t tell Oakley that she had been moving forward in the testing process until three months in, when it had been narrowed down to two potential matches — she had been afraid of jinxing it.
“I felt like at that point — I know this isn’t the right word — but I felt like I was going to be the winner,” she said.
Deppen did “win,” and in November of 2021, just before Thanksgiving, the friends had their surgeries at University Hospital at IU Health. It’s a quick transfer. The kidney is disconnected and removed from the donor and immediately implanted in the recipient. Oakley said the surgeons created all new connections for the new kidney rather than using vessels from her failing one — which was not removed.
Recovery was a little challenging in the beginning, partly because of a reaction to the anesthesia. Deppen said she was released in a couple days, and Oakley was able to go home in only five days.
“They told me it could be two to three weeks,” Oakley said. “So, I think that’s what made the kids so nervous is that mom might be gone (and becase of COVID-19), that was going to be three weeks of not being able to see me at all. I think that part was scary.”
Oakley’s two children are friends with Deppen’s daughters, and they also talked a little about how the process affected them.
Deppen’s daughter Mollie Deppen recalled how she felt.
“I was really proud of my mom for donating her kidney to Mrs. Oakley because I love my mom. And also I was really happy Mrs. Oakley was getting a kidney for my mom because I love Mrs. Oakley, and she’s like my second mother,” she said.
Oakely’s son Gage said he was nervous about the surgery and wanted as much information as possible.
“I didn’t know what would happen, really,” he said. “I was asking a lot of questions every night.”
Meryn Oakley said the hardest part of the process for her was seeing her dad so anxious.
“Just because he was so worried about my mom,” she said “And then I think the hardest day was Thanksgiving. Because my mom wasn’t here for Thanksgiving.”
Now, though, Thanksgiving is extra special for both families. It’s a time to think back and be thankful for a precious gift from one friend to another.
April is National Donate Life Month. According to the Donate Life website, a living organ donor donates an organ or part of an organ to a person in need. A kidney donation is possible from a living donor, because people can live a healthy life with one functioning kidney. A liver donation is possible because a healthy liver will regenerate to normal size in up to three months.
Donors do not need to be related to a recipient, according to the website, and a donated organ from a living donor usually lasts longer for the recipient than organs from a recently deceased person.
For information about becoming an organ donor, go to donatelife.net or https://iuhealth.org/find-medical-services/living-kidney-donation.