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Over the past 20 years, Nikki Loichinger has seen gastroenterologists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, gynecologists and pain specialists. But until she sat down with the Renal Autotransplant Program staff at UW Health in Madison, she never found anyone who understood what was wrong with her—or how to fix it.
Simply put, Nikki was in constant pain in the lower left quadrant of her body. After her kidney autotransplant in April 2021, however, she experienced the joy of release. “I have none of the pains I had been suffering from for the past six years,” she says. “They’re all gone.”
No end to the pain
You could almost mistake Nikki’s medical history for a comprehensive list of procedures offered at any given hospital. As doctors tried in vain to treat her pain, the Hartland, Wisconsin, woman underwent a hysterectomy, bowel resection, exploratory laparoscopy, appendectomy, and gallbladder surgery. Doctors even installed a spinal cord stimulator in her body that created much more pain than it alleviated.
Desperate for relief, Nikki—a mom of two teenagers—tried acupuncture, nerve blocking injections and shots in her belly. “I have been called a doctor hopper and a woman who was just looking for pain medications,” she says. “But that wasn’t true. Not once did I go to a specialist seeking drugs. I just wanted answers.”
Then, in October 2020, her mother’s friend sent her mother a Washington Post story about a woman whose symptoms matched Nikki’s. She was diagnosed with nutcracker syndrome, a rare vein compression disorder that occurs when arteries squeeze the left renal vein. The story had a happy ending: The woman had found treatment at UW Health.
Armed with a potential diagnosis, Nikki frantically began Googling “nutcracker syndrome,” which led her to even more stories about women who were just like her. She contacted her doctor about her discovery, but he dismissed the idea and told her he didn’t think this was the answer. Finally, she contacted UW Health.
The answers she needed
As Nikki talked with doctors and staff at the UW Health Renal Autotransplant Program, she knew she was in the right place. “I felt like I was finally being heard, that my voice mattered, that I wasn’t crazy,” she says.
David Foley, MD, FACS, transplant surgeon in the Renal Autotransplant Program, examined Nikki’s bloodwork and imaging studies and agreed she might have found the correct diagnosis for herself. She came to Madison in January 2021 for further testing, and sure enough, doctors noticed she had compression in her left renal vein. She wasn’t a textbook case, but they believed they could help her. “I cried and cried with such happiness,” Nikki says. “Dr. Foley and his team were able to give explanations of why this was happening, which I had never gotten before.”
On April 9, 2021, Nikki underwent a kidney autotransplant, during which Dr. Foley removed her left kidney and ureter and replaced them in a different part of her abdominal area. She was in the hospital for six days, then returned home to Hartland to recover.
Nikki is still sore from surgery. But for her, that small amount of pain is nothing compared to the promise of a new life. She can’t wait to go to her kids’ athletic events and be a “supermom” again. “I was a shell of who I used to be,” she says. “But I told everyone, April 9 is the day I get my life back. The nurses in the hospital couldn’t believe I started walking so quickly after surgery. But I felt like my body had been craving pain relief for so long, I was ready to start life again.”