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As a pediatric kidney transplant recipient, Laurel O’Brien learned very early that she had to follow all the rules her doctors gave her.
So, the teenager was shocked when she met another transplant patient who had decided to stop taking her medications.
To Laurel, that was unthinkable. She knew just how fortunate she was—she had undergone UW Health’s first-ever pediatric kidney transplant in 1967 at age 14. Now, at age 70, she still marvels at the miracle that saved her life, and she acknowledges just how unique her situation was.
Needing a miracle
As a child, Laurel was always contracting strep throat. After a while, the bacteria traveled to her kidneys and caused them to scar, leading to chronic kidney failure. The morning after Thanksgiving 1966, she was playing with her nephews when she suddenly started throwing up. Her mother rushed her to the hospital, where she received unit after unit of blood. “My kidneys had basically stopped filtering things and were acting as a dam for my blood, which was causing extremely high blood pressure,” she said.
Doctors at Laurel’s local hospital put her on peritoneal dialysis—a relatively new treatment at the time, so her caregivers were still learning how to operate the dialysis machine. They called UW Health in Madison, which had just started its kidney transplant program. “I think they knew I was going to need a kidney transplant,” Laurel said. “At that point, my kidneys were only functioning at 25 percent.”
In December, UW Health doctors started screening Laurel’s mom and three of her four sisters to determine if any of them could be a kidney donor. Her older sister Peg (who was 24) was the best match, and they began making plans for Peg to donate her kidney to Laurel in early 1967.
Peg, who is now 80, acknowledges that she was probably an “old 24”—she had two children and was divorced. “Our family just pulled together and said, this is what we have to do,” she said. “The doctors told me people who received a kidney transplant typically survived for two years. I thought, ‘OK, I can give her two years.’”
Pioneers in transplant surgery
On Feb. 7, 1967, doctors performed surgery on Laurel to remove both her kidneys and spleen and kept her in the hospital. On Feb. 21, they removed both a kidney and a rib from Peg and performed the hospital’s first pediatric transplant on Laurel.
Laurel doesn’t remember everything about her stay in the hospital after her transplant, but a few aspects do stick out, such as the large number of medical students who were always showing up at her room. She also remembers that all her caregivers were very kind. “They were being honest with us that they were trying something new—a kidney transplant on a child,” she said. “They always explained things to me and took the time to care for me.”
Even though Laurel missed a lot of school because of her illness, she took extra classes during the summer and graduated with her class in 1970. Then, both she and her sister Peg attended college at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, majoring in home economics (their mom cared for Peg’s two boys so she could earn her degree).
For the next several decades, Laurel taught home economics and history at U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force bases around the world. Suddenly, the young girl who wasn’t expected to live into adulthood had turned into a world traveler.
Laurel retired from teaching in 2007 and now lives in Antigo, Wisconsin. She and Peg are still close, and Laurel often gives her sister a “kidney anniversary” present in honor of the gift of life she gave her 56 years ago. “It’s been a good run,” she said.