Renal autotransplant

Kate travels from North Carolina to find relief from pain

Kate Wester, smiling outdoors in a grey shirt.

Kate Wester has big plans for her future: She wants to be a pediatric gastroenterologist, helping children navigate problems with their digestive system and find relief for their pain and discomfort.

But unlike many other 18-year-olds who hope to attend medical school, Kate has an intimate knowledge of her specific ambition. She has spent most of the last two years battling terrible pain because of multiple compression problems with her arteries and veins. After hearing doctors tell her she would just have to live with her pain, Kate finally found a solution—with the help of her parents, her pediatric gastroenterologist and the UW Health Renal Autotransplant Center.

“Some of the things my doctor did to help me, I want to be able to do for other people,” Kate said.

No stop to the pain

Kate, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, first began experiencing pain in her abdominal area in September 2021. After five months of testing, including X-rays, endoscopies, ultrasounds and computed tomography (CT) scans, she finally received a diagnosis of median arcuate ligament syndrome (MALS). MALS occurs when a band of tissue in the chest area presses on the artery that sends blood to the upper abdomen.

A month later, Kate was diagnosed with a second compression syndrome: superior mesenteric artery syndrome (SMAS), in which part of the small intestine is compressed between two arteries. She had surgery to repair both conditions in March 2022, and was pain-free—for about two weeks. Then, the original pain started coming back, along with pain in her left side. “We had no idea what to do, because we thought we found everything after looking for so long,” Kate said.

By May 2022, Kate was no longer able to eat by mouth or feeding tubes and had to use total parenteral nutrition (TPN), a method of feeding that bypasses the gastrointestinal tract. She had just graduated from high school, but instead of looking forward to starting college she was in constant pain and was dehydrated. Her mother Kristen, desperate to find answers, started traveling with Kate to specialists around the country on the suspicion that she had nutcracker syndrome—yet another compression problem that occurs when the arteries squeeze the left kidney vein.

They finally found a doctor in Baltimore who confirmed that she did, indeed, have nutcracker syndrome. The next step was to find someone who knew how to fix it, so Kate and Kristen began researching potential surgical options. That’s how they came across the UW Health Renal Autotransplant Program, where a woman with similar problems to Kate had found relief.

Finding a solution

Kate and Kristen read with interest the story of Sophia Moore, who had also undergone surgery for MALS before needing treatment for nutcracker syndrome. She found her answer with David Foley, MD, transplant surgeon and medical director of the renal autotransplant program.

Kate went to see Dr. Foley in November 2022, and he agreed to perform the surgery, which he did in January 2023. He removed her left kidney and ureter, cleaned up the kidney and put it back in her right pelvic area. Despite some initial complications and a second surgery to repair a ureter stricture, the procedure was ultimately a success, and Kate is on her way to recovery.

“I knew how much Dr. Foley changed other people’s lives, and I was excited for him to do that for me,” Kate said. “Even with the complications, he and his team made it clear they weren’t going to give up until they found what was wrong. I trusted them completely going into the second surgery.”

Kate is now tapering off her pain medications after two years, and this fall, she plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I feel 100 times better than I did before the surgery,” Kate said. “I couldn’t be happier that I got to work with Dr. Foley and his team.”