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Ben Howard spent more than a decade believing he had a kidney disease for which there was no cure—and no way to curb the debilitating symptoms.
“We had accepted the reality of what was happening,” said his wife, Diane. “We had been told for so long that he was dying.”
Then, a family friend who was also a kidney doctor helped the Howards understand that there were, indeed, steps they could take to improve Ben’s quality of life—including getting on the wait list for a kidney transplant, which he had thought was impossible.
Ultimately, the Howards—who live in Bourbonnais, Illinois—found the answer they needed at the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Ben received the gift of a kidney transplant on Feb. 10, 2018, and he’s now enjoying a life that includes lots of time with family and friends and a fulfilling job at an Amazon warehouse.
From hopeless to the gift of life
Ben, who is now 47, first found out he had kidney issues when he tried to join the military at age 17 and was rejected because of too much protein and blood in his urine. A few years later, he was diagnosed with IGA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease. It occurs when an antibody builds up in the kidneys, causing inflammation that can damage the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood.
Doctors told Ben and Diane that the only way to repair his kidneys would be to undergo a kidney transplant, which wasn’t an option because the disease would just resurface after the transplant. Over the years, he jumped from specialist to specialist, only to hear the same story: There was nothing they could do for him.
Eventually, the Howards asked their family friend for help, and he told them about the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which includes foods that are rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium. It’s been proven to control blood pressure, and Ben discovered it helped him stay healthy for a while, too.
In the meantime, the Howards moved to Illinois and started seeing a doctor who told them that a kidney transplant was, indeed, an option for them now. Ben didn’t have any family members who could donate to him, so he got on the wait list for a new kidney at a Chicago-area hospital. After waiting for two years with no contact from the hospital, he heard about the option to be listed at two different hospitals. The doctors he encountered told him to go to UW Health in Madison, because it had the shortest wait times in this part of the country.
Ben got on the wait list for a new kidney in early 2017, and a year later he received his gift of life.
An unusual new kidney
By coincidence, Ben’s new kidney happened to be a milestone in the UW Health Transplant Center’s history: It was the first time surgeons in Madison transplanted a “horseshoe kidney,” which is a congenital malformation in which the kidneys don’t separate during development. Instead, they stay fused together at the lower end. Because of the extra tissue and blood vessels, these kidneys can be difficult to transplant.
Jon Odorico, MD, was Ben’s transplant surgeon in 2018, and he remembers it well. “Our general philosophy is, if the kidney is working in the donor, it should work in the recipient, regardless of how uncommon it is,” he said. “We just have to be extra careful when we are connecting it to the blood vessels.”
Sometimes, a horseshoe kidney can be split and go to two different recipients. In Ben’s case, the two kidneys were fused too much to be separated, so he received both kidneys in one mass. “At UW Health, we have a lot of experience handling unusual cases, so we were able to take on this difficult case,” Dr. Odorico said.
The first year after Ben’s transplant was challenging, as he experienced some illnesses that landed him back in the hospital several times. But slowly, his health improved, and today he is one of UW Health’s biggest cheerleaders.
“I tell people my story quite often,” he said. “I’m feeling great. I got to see both of my grandsons born, and it’s because I got another chance at life.”