Kidney transplant

Karen celebrates 50 years with her new kidney

A lot has happened in Karen Nardi’s life over the last 50 years, but one thing hasn’t changed—she remains forever grateful for the kidney that saved her life.

Karen, smiling outside on a beach.

On Jan. 30, the Aurora, WI, woman celebrates 50 years since she received a kidney transplant at University Hospital in Madison, WI.

Karen’s kidney is a survivor. It has lasted for 98 years, despite the fact that Karen is only 74. It has outlived the woman who initially owned it — Karen’s mother and kidney donor, Bette Pipp. It survived a surprise pregnancy at a time when Karen’s doctors didn’t think her body could handle it. Yes, Karen’s kidney is truly miraculous, and she attributes its resiliency to a higher power. “God wants me here for a reason,” she says. “It’s so special, and I feel very blessed.”

Karen is the second longest living kidney recipient in the UW Health Transplant Program. Except for a minor rejection episode a few months after the surgery, the kidney has continued to work well for her.

She first experienced health problems when she was in her early 20s. She saw her primary care physician in Florence, Wisconsin, who didn’t know what was wrong but, on a hunch, sent her to see the UW Health doctors in Madison, Wisconsin. There, a biopsy showed both of Karen’s kidneys were performing at only 30 percent capacity. Doctors at the UW Health Transplant Center predicted her kidneys would last about two years, and they were right — two years later, at age 23, Karen needed a transplant, which was then considered an extremely dangerous surgery. Doctors told her one of her family members would need to give her a kidney, and while both her mother and brother were matches, they decided her mother would be the best option. As Karen later learned, her brother was meant to keep his kidney — years later, he would donate it to his teenage son, who also had kidney disease.

In the early 1970s, doctors removed a patient’s non-functioning kidneys before transplantation, so Karen underwent that surgery, waited at the hospital for three weeks, then received the kidney from her mother. “There were more than a few people who thought I was going to die, because so few people received kidney transplants in the early 1970s,” Karen says. “But I never thought that. I’ve always had a positive attitude on everything.”

Karen and her husband, Norman, wanted to have children after her transplant. But doctors felt that it was too risky for a kidney transplant recipient to become pregnant, so after a long wait, they adopted first their daughter, Stacy, and then their son, Scott. Then, Norman died of a heart attack at age 39. A few years later, Karen married her second husband, Jerry, and became unexpectedly pregnant at age 36. “My family and doctors were so incredibly worried,” she says. But after a difficult, premature delivery, they welcomed their youngest daughter, Chrissy, into their lives.

Today, against all odds, Karen’s kidney is still healthy. “It’s unbelievable to think that they perform kidney transplants here every day now,” she says. “It was so unique before.”

Over the past three years, Karen has been very careful to take care of her precious kidney during the COVID-19 pandemic. While she never contracted the novel Coronavirus, she did experience many other health problems, including sciatica, a massive heart attack and gallbladder surgery.

“I feel so blessed,” she says. “I can’t believe it’s been 50 years. It feels like I got my kidney yesterday.”