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While the nation was in a state of shock over the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Ann Smitherman was beginning her own nightmare.
On that day, she started experiencing terrible abdominal pain that landed her in the emergency room. Doctors diagnosed her with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which cysts form on the kidneys, causing them to lose function.
Ann’s pain never went away. She tried to continue with her desk job in inventory control, but after a couple of years, she couldn’t function at work anymore. She and her husband, Tommy, and their two children struggled to get by as she fought for Social Security benefits, but in 2005, they lost their house in Texas and moved in with her brother in Bloomington, Minnesota. Ann, a U.S. Navy veteran, fought constant pain and depression the entire time.
Then, in 2007, life dealt her another blow: Tommy died after suffering a heart attack in bed. Ann’s health continued to decline. She moved back and forth between Minnesota and Texas a couple more times, collecting an additional diagnosis of polycystic liver disease along the way. Because she is a veteran, Ann receives her health care at Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals. The only possible cure for her health problems was a kidney and liver transplant, but her VA in Minnesota didn’t perform transplants. So, her doctors referred her to the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital and UW Health kidney and liver transplant programs in Madison, Wisconsin.
Transplant wasn’t a new concept for Ann and her family—her father also had polycystic kidney disease and had received a kidney transplant when she was young. Still, the idea scared her. After she came to Madison and underwent the required testing to go on the transplant wait list, she waited for a call saying it was her turn. But when she finally received that call—for a kidney and liver that was from an at-risk donor—she turned it down. “I was afraid of dying,” she says. “But after I got that first call, I realized what transplant entailed, and by the time I got a second call, I was ready.”
Ultimately, Ann would have to wait until her third call to receive the gift of life. After the second call, she flew to Madison, but due to technical challenges the doctors weren’t able to place adequate intravenous catheters prior to surgery and the transplant needed to be canceled. By the third call, however, the doctors had developed a novel strategy for working with her veins and were able to place the necessary catheters successfully. In May 2019, Ann received a new kidney and liver.
Before the transplant, Ann says, she looked like she was nine months pregnant. Afterward, the extra fluid went away—and so did her pain. She had the transplant at University Hospital in Madison and stayed in the intensive care unit there, then she finished her recovery at the VA hospital. “Everybody that cared for me was wonderful,” she says. “I couldn’t have been more pleased.”
Ann is acutely aware of how fortunate she was to receive a second chance at life with her new organs. Two of her brothers also suffered from polycystic kidney disease, but they never had transplants. Both of them now have died. “Now, I am able to go about my day without being in pain,” Ann says. “I’m so glad I had this opportunity.”