Kristen Crawford never imagined she would need painkillers to get through the day.
But after suffering from excruciating pain for more than five years, she did, indeed, develop a tolerance for opioids—a challenge that she recently conquered thanks to help from the Renal Autotransplant Program team at UW Health in Madison, WI.
When Kristen, who is now 26, first started college, she began experiencing mysterious gastrointestinal symptoms. She was having kidney problems, flank pain and blood in her urine, and because specialists in her hometown of St. Louis, MO, couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, they instead focused on treating her symptoms.
That treatment was opioids. And while the pain medication helped, it still didn’t give her a high quality of life. “I had a home pain pump, and I had to push the button every 15 minutes for more medication,” she said.
Eventually, Kristen saw a doctor in St. Louis who suspected she had loin pain hematuria syndrome (LPHS), a rare condition that involves flank pain and blood in the urine. As Kristen’s family was researching the syndrome and treatment options, a neighbor said she had read about the Renal Autotransplant Program at UW Health, which had successfully treated LPHS patients by removing their kidney and ureter and replacing them in a different part of the abdomen.
Kristen’s doctor called UW Health to say she would be a great fit for the program.
In October 2018, a transplant surgeon at UW Health performed an autotransplant of Kristen’s left kidney, and the procedure was life changing. For about a year, she lived without pain, but by late 2019, she began experiencing debilitating pain in her right kidney area. After a while, her St. Louis doctor reached out to UW Health again, and David Foley, MD, a transplant surgeon and medical director of the UW Health Renal Autotransplant Program, agreed to perform another autotransplant on her right side.
This time, the surgery was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kristen’s parents had to drop her off at the front door of the hospital. “I was away from home and by myself,” she said, “and the nurses took amazing care of me. I couldn’t have done it without them. Dr. Foley kept giving me encouragement. He made the experience so much better.”
The surgery did its job, and Kristen felt much better once she recovered. However, because she had been taking significantly high doses of opioids for so long, it was a long process to wean her off the medications. Her doctor in St. Louis worked with her caregivers at UW Health to decrease her opioid requirements. By November 2022, she was completely opioid-free.
Now, Kristen has moved to Atlanta, Georgia, with her boyfriend, who found a job as a chiropractor there. She had to drop out of nursing school back in 2016 when her LPHS flared up, but she’s now applying to schools in her area and plans to start college in September 2023. “I’m really excited to get back,” she said. “It’s something I never thought I was going to be able to do.”