Gift of a kidney from husband to wife
FERNLEY – Both the Gillespie cars bear bumper stickers reading: “Organ donation: The only cost is a little love.”
The slogan neatly wraps up a wrenching three-year nightmare for Steve and Duffy Gillespie of Fernley.
They put an end to the horrors a year ago this weekend when Steve gave his wife, Duffy, one of his kidneys to replace her failed kidneys. He didn’t even flinch when the reality of him donating a kidney arose.
“When you love someone, you become selfless,” said Steve Gillespie, general manager at Best Western Fernley Inn. “You make whatever sacrifices are necessary and not run away from the responsibility.”
Duffy Gillespie speaks a bit more irreverently when rationalizing her husband’s gesture.
“I was perfectly healthy until I met him, so I thought it was only fair that he gave me his kidney,” she said.
Nov. 19 has become just as significant an anniversary date for the Gillespies as their wedding day. On Nov. 19, 1998, Steve and Duffy lay in separate operating rooms at Pacific California Medical Center in San Francisco.
Doctors plucked Steve Gillespie’s left kidney and planted it in Duffy Gillespie within the half hour. A life of daily vomiting and peritoneal dyalisis gave way to nearly normal living for her, including vigorous portrayals in Fernley Little Theater productions.
“Now we’re guardians of my 8-year-old grandson, Russell,” Duffy said. “If I did not have a transplant, we would not have been able to take care of my grandson.”
Until recently, kidney transplants were limited to direct relatives like siblings.
“They didn’t used to do it at all,” said Dr. Steven Vicks, Gillespie’s nephrologist. “It’s just been in the 1990s.”
Vicks said he has performed several spouse-to-spouse kidney transplants on Northern Nevada patients.
Not any couple can exchange kidneys. Several criteria must be satisfied but Steve Gillespie met them all.
For starters, he has blood type O-negative, which can be transfused to people with any blood type. Also, three of four antigen markers in the tissue type must match – “the odds are way long,” Steve said – and in this case the kidney needed one artery, not two.
Duffy Gillespie, 55, cherishes the gift from her husband of four years. He now is literally a part of her.
“Because it came from him, that makes it very special,” said Duffy, clasping Steve’s hand as they sit on their patio. “This is a man who’s never had an operation or ever really been hospitalized.”
Duffy, on the other hand, lived a life of hospitals and toilets since the first indications that something was not right five years ago. The new kidney improved the quality of her life dramatically.
“Right now, it’s an eight,” she said. “I want to be a 10 again. Before, it was maybe a minus-two. Now I’m in pretty good health. I look better. I certainly feel better. My ego is better. But my stamina is not quite there yet. I get very tired being on my feet all day.”
She was a nurse at South Lyon Medical Center before the transplant and she was welcomed back after an extended leave-of-absence. Employees even pooled their paid time off and donated the equivalent of a month and a half of salary to Gillespie.
Gillespie had her first vomitting-nausea-fever-pain attack in June 1994, while she worked as a nurse at infirmary at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.
“I was never a known puker. All of a sudden I became one,” Gillespie said.
She had no clue this was a kidney problem and that diagnosis would not surface for more than a years. Doctors in the first year attributed her problems to the flu.
The attacks came every two or three months, but not until November 1995 did doctors take a blood panel. Gillespie said even then they didn’t pinpoint a kidney problem.
Steve, 46, and Duffy met in the early days of her illness while he was performing in a band at Piper’s in Silver Springs. They got married Aug. 19, 1995.
Duffy’s kidney’s ultimately failed April 15, 1996, starting the protracted new chapter of her suffering until the kidney transplant two and a half years later.
Steve: “I’ve never seen anybody endure as much for three years.”
Duffy: “It was like being pregnant for three years.”
Steve Gillespie offered his kidney when he learned that transplants with spouses was possible.
“I’m just that kind of guy,” he said. “My mom and dad have been married 44 years. Mom has been sick since 1991 with Downs Syndrome. Dad gave up his life, basically, to take care of her. I took a lesson from that.”
Duffy Gillespie was told the kidney failure was caused by wild fluctuations in her platelet levels. Platelets are protoplasms that help the blood clot.
“I was supposed to have 350,000 platelets. I had like 2,000. Then I had 1 million platelets,” she said.
Among the 20-some pills she takes each day, one medications controls her platelet levels.
The medication doesn’t keep her off the Fernley Little Theater stage. Before the transplant, she was an understudy in “Blithe Spirit” in 1997 and, with Steve’s kidney tucked in her abdomen, Duffy this year appeared in “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Steel Magnolias.”
Gillespie fully intends on playing Grandma Yetta in “Lost in Yonders” in February or thereabouts at Fernley Little Theater.
“I have every intent of – not trying – but getting it,” Duffy Gillespie said.