Paired kidney exchange unites couples, saves two lives

BAKER, LA (WAFB) - John Mayers and his wife April have been residents of Baker with their family for eight years.  John was a pastor and April is an account manager.  They both worked together at a substance abuse facility helping others.

That all changed after some routine blood work revealed that John had chronic kidney disease.

"It's a process that's kind of slow. It will get worse and worse and there's nothing that can reverse it once it gets started," said John.

For seven years, doctors closely monitored the function in John's kidneys.  Exams gradually grew more frequent from annual, to semi- annual, to monthly and then eventually, he was put on dialysis.

For a year and a half, a machine would do what his kidneys could not, filtering out the waste in John's body, until he was finally approved for a kidney transplant.

"It's been a challenge, you know, but you'll do what ever you can for your family," said his wife April.

Around the same time John received his diagnoses, Baton Rouge native Elisabeth LaMotte was living in Alabama.  The recent LSU grad was working for a department store when one day, she noticed swelling in her ankles.  She went to the doctor and was given some bad news. She had a rare disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis.

"My body releases too much protein and the side effects of that, because of the way the kidneys function, it causes you to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol," explained Elisabeth.

Over the next eight years, LaMotte bounced around with her job and eventually ended up in Welsh after she married her college sweetheart Field.

However, her health struggles continued.  She developed hip trouble and had to have both hips replaced.  She and her husband tried to start a family, but the stress of her disease was too much and her kidney function quickly declined.  Her doctor approved her for a kidney transplant.

"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," said her husband Field of their journey together.  "But we're strong in the foundation of our relationship.  We've had a lot of good times."

Back in Baker, April was eager to give her kidney to her husband.  When she was tested, the clinic was amazed to see that she was a rare 100 percent match.

"The Bible says when a man and woman join together, they become one flesh and so that was a great example of my wife able to donate to me," said John.

However, as they talked with doctors at Tulane Medical Center, April and John were given an alternate choice.  April was also a match for another transplant candidate, whose spouse also matched John.  The two couples could be apart of a paired kidney exchange, and two lives could be saved.

The decision was April's to make.  Focused for so long on her husband's health and her family's well being, she says she was hesitant at first.  It was only after much prayer that she came to a decision.

"I said, 'Lord what would you want me to do? What do you want me to do here? If was you Lord, if was you?'" said April in a prayer. "Then it hit me. I already know what he did for us. He gave everything. Of course, he wants me to do this."

It was then that the struggles of these two couples would converge.  April and John were paired with Elisabeth and Field for the exchange, although they would not officially meet until after the surgery.

Both couples arrived at Tulane on June 18.  Field, who was not a match for his wife, donated his kidney to John.  April gave hers to Elisabeth.

When they finally met, it was a bittersweet moment.

"I was so excited to see that she was a young girl and that they hadn't even had kids and they want kids," said April who is a mother of two and a grandmother of one.

"April could have given directly to John but she decided to help out an additional person. That, I can't describe. It's just so selfless," said Elisabeth.

However, the journey to recovery is not over yet.  Shortly after her interview with WAFB, Elisabeth had to return to the hospital.  Her disease had begun to spread to her new kidney.  For eight days she underwent a plasma exchange, which has slowed the disease.

She will have to continue outpatient treatment for a few months while doctors keep a close eye on her.  However, she says the treatments seem to be working.

"I'm staying positive," she said over the phone.

John must take several medications to make sure his body does not reject his new kidney.  However, he no longer needs dialysis and will eventually wean off most of his meds.

Both Elisabeth and John say the promise of a new life is pushing both of their families forward.

"For the first time in months, I feel like I can set a goal for something and accomplish that goal," said Elisabeth with a smile.

"Looking forward to some happy days," said Field. "It's something that she's going to have to manage, we're going to have to manage. We're not just flipping a switch, give it a high five and going along our way."

"Before I was looking at, I was stuck. I couldn't go anywhere and now I've got my whole life ahead of me," said John.

"Everybody's going to live and be healthy," agreed April.