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Mother gives gift of life again

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WORTHINGTON -- There is a favorite remark Heidi Junker recites when it comes to explaining the lifesaving surgery she endured last August.

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"A friend of mine once said, 'How often is it that a mother can give you life twice?'" recalled the 29-year-old Worthington woman just three months after her mom, Nancy Raboin, donated her left kidney so that her daughter's life might return to some sense of normalcy.

Junker's health began to deteriorate when, as a 24-year-old, she was diagnosed with ulcer colitis. For the next four years, she endured more medical poking and prodding than most people her age can imagine. Trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester were filled with numerous tests, and doctors prescribed one medication after another to help lessen the effects of the disorder.

"I've had more colonoscopies than most people in their 50s," said Junker, adding that nothing doctors prescribed helped curb the frequent urination and bleeding caused by the colitis.

As a last resort, surgery was performed last November to remove her colon. In the process, surgeons created a small pouch in her intestine that, if effective, would prevent the need for her to wear a colostomy bag.

"I was so young, they didn't want to put me through that," she said.

Junker remained in the hospital for 2½ weeks as her husband, Jason, alternated between his wife's bedside and caring for then 3-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, back at home. The family would be reunited just before Thanksgiving for what she hoped would be a holiday of celebration.

But two days after her homecoming, Junker began experiencing "extreme pain." She was taken to Worthington Regional Hospital, and then returned to Rochester via ambulance.

Within a few days, doctors discovered the intestinal pouch they created wasn't working properly. The only option now, they said, was to install a colostomy bag. Junker remained in the hospital through much of December and, by the time she was allowed to return home, she had dropped from her 116-pound frame to a mere 85 pounds.

Junker went back to work at Rall Financial despite a constant feeling of being tired. She said it took much effort even to get up from her office chair.

"The second surgery had shut down my kidneys and I didn't know it," she said. "I was tired all of the time."

Junker first learned that her kidneys weren't functioning properly after the birth of her daughter. At the time, doctors said she'd never reach the point where she would need dialysis.

However, following the surgeries to remove her colon and insert a colostomy bag, her kidneys could no longer filter the toxins from her body. Junker made it through January and much of February with a constant feeling of tiredness, and on Feb. 21, she had a dialysis catheter installed in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"At this time, we were just worried about getting my blood cleared up and somewhat functional," Junker said.

She returned home after three days and began a dialysis program at the local hospital.

"I was the youngest patient in the dialysis program at Worthington," she added. Her 2½-hour dialysis treatments were scheduled for three times per week -- Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Search for a kidney

As Junker's dialysis continued, her parents looked at the options for a kidney transplant.

"They told us there were thousands of people on the (waiting) list, and Mark and I knew it would be a long time," Nancy Radoin said. "We knew a family member would be a better match."

The Radoins requested a test kit from the Mayo Clinic that would determine a potential match for their daughter. Mark was the first to go in for the series of tests but, a week later, he received a phone call and the news that his kidney was not compatible. While Mark still had the clinic's transplant coordinator on the line, Nancy requested a test kit be sent for her to complete. Another week went by before they learned the news -- there was a potential match between mother and daughter.

Nancy was scheduled for three days of extensive testing at Mayo Clinic before the green light was given and a date could be set for the transplant.

Meanwhile, Junker went through a procedure in April to reverse the colostomy bag procedure -- a necessary step before the transplant operation could be completed. She asked to have the transplant done as soon as possible, and Aug. 26 was selected for the surgery.

Junker's last dialysis treatment was on Aug. 25, and the next day, she and her mom were wheeled into adjoining operating rooms at Rochester's Methodist Hospital for the transplant. The procedure went extremely well.

"I woke up from surgery and I felt great," Junker said. "I hadn't felt that good in five years."

Raboin's recovery was slightly more difficult because of nausea, but still she was released just 3½ days after surgery. Junker spent four days in the hospital, and was required to stay in Rochester for the next month to attend daily checkups.

While there is a transplant house in Rochester, Junker opted not to stay there because strict rules prevented anyone younger than age 18 from visiting -- including her own daughter.

Since her husband is manager of the Worthington Holiday Inn Express, they received a good deal on a hotel room in Rochester, but the bill from her lengthy stay -- including the cost of food and the fuel her husband needed to get back and forth -- added up.

And, while insurance has covered a substantial amount of the $54,000 kidney transplant and the $130,000 in hospital bills during the past year, the Junkers still owe a considerable amount.

To help offset their expenses, a chili feed fund-raiser will be hosted in Junker's honor from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, 1505 Dover St., Worthington.

A life renewed

Since returning home to Worthington, Junker said she feels great.

"I finally feel normal, although it's hard to know what normal is after being tired for so long," she said.

Today, Junker takes 35 pills per day, with rounds beginning at 9 a.m. and wrapping up at 9 p.m.

"I'll take 35 pills a day over three days of dialysis a week," she said. Eventually, she hopes to be down to three main pills -- all anti-rejection medications -- per day.

Since Junker's kidney came from a living family member, as opposed to a non-family member or cadaver, the life expectancy of her new kidney is 25 to 30 years. She knows there's a good chance she will need another kidney transplant some day -- and her little daughter has picked up on that, too.

"Kaitlyn said, 'Well mommy, if you need another kidney, I can give it to you,'" Junker said.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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