Sunday fundraiser will aid organ recipientWindom native undergoes kidney and pancreas transplant
WINDOM — When the phone rang at 3 a.m., Renee Ratzloff-Giefer saw an unfamiliar number and debated whether or not she should answer it. “You might as well,” her husband Jerry said.
WINDOM — When the phone rang at 3 a.m., Renee Ratzloff-Giefer saw an unfamiliar number and debated whether or not she should answer it.
“You might as well,” her husband Jerry said.
Twenty-four hours later, she was being prepped for surgery, and when she awoke in recovery after eight hours of surgery, she felt as though she had been given a new lease on life.
“But it took so many pivotal people to get here,” she admitted.
Diagnosed with Type I Diabetes at age 12, Renee had spent most of her life planning around insulin shots and blood sugar readings. By the time her son Brady was born, her body’s demand for insulin had gone from two shots a day to seven. Then her kidneys slowly began to fail.
Even though they had one son, Jerry and Renee were surrounded by children. Jerry taught guitar lessons, Renee ice skating. She worked with teenagers through her church. They led a busy life, but little by little, as Renee’s kidneys deteriorated, she started to slow down.
“She’d come home from work and just pass out sleeping,” Jerry said.
Eventually, she changed jobs, becoming a personal care attendant for Prairie River Home Care and caring for her aunt, Pauline Kulseth. Still, her energy level continued to spiral downward.
With her own endocrinologist moving to a different city, she wasn’t quite sure which way to turn, but then a chance encounter with a family friend led her to a new doctor. The friend had just finished interning with a Dr. Stesin, who agreed to see Renee in Oakdale. Then nephrologist Dr. Sommermeyer got involved.
When Renee’s kidney activity was down to 15 percent functionality, she was accepted onto a donor list. Her doctors then got her on a list for both a kidney and a pancreas. But because of her B-negative blood type, they didn’t offer much hope for finding a donor. In fact, Renee and Jerry failed to follow the recommendation to have a bag packed because they didn’t think the organs would become available.
“We thought there was no chance,” Jerry said, shrugging his shoulders. “At that point, Renee kept saying that she just wanted to see Brady graduate.”
“We had put a lot of our hopes and plans on hold, and were just trying to live in the moment,” Renee added.
Then, in the middle of December, five months after being put on the donor list, the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Sommermeyer.
“We think we have a kidney and pancreas for you,” he said. “Would you be willing to receive it?”
A 22-year-old man had just died in a car crash in Florida. His organs matched four of the six identified blood and tissue type points physicians use to pair up donors and recipients. But there was a slight problem — the man had been a heroin user in his past. He had also been clean and sober for eight months.
Renee and Jerry were willing to take the risk. In a whirlwind of movement, they packed bags, woke family members, made arrangements and left for the University of Minnesota Fairview.
“We ran around like chickens with our heads cut off,” Renee admitted with a giggle.
Accompanied by her father, her husband and her son, Renee left her home shortly after 4 a.m. Dec. 14. By 3 p.m., she was prepped and ready to go, and they waited for the cooler bearing the life-saving organs to arrive.
The medical staff at the U of M referred to her as the “miracle girl.” None of them could believe she hadn’t already been placed on dialysis, having gone below 10 percent kidney functionality.
“I do remember waking up afterward,” Renee recalled. “I felt like I was in a different body. I could already tell it was working, cleansing the toxins from my body.”
Still, she thought a lot about the person who had died.
“It is hard for me to wrap my head around it,” she admitted. “Someone had to die in order for me to live longer. I think of my Brady, who is 19, then think of this 22-year-old. His parents.”
Vowing to show her thankfulness by taking care of herself, Renee concentrated on recovering.
Things went well, and she arrived back home in Windom on Christmas Eve Day. Brady, who had come home a few days earlier, had decorated the house for Christmas to surprise his mother.
“It was unbelievable. I was just numb with joy,” Renee said.
She had a bout with a fever that sent her back to the hospital just after the New Year, but was home again before too long.
Used to being the caregiver, Renee was now in the position of receiving care.
“Jerry took such good care of me,” she said, reaching over to clasp her hand in his.
With a new pancreas, Renee had to get used to the fact that she is no longer diabetic. Having spent several years with an insulin pump attached to her body, she found herself grabbing for it when she got up, only to remember it was gone.
“I kept looking down for it to see what time it was,” she laughed. “So Jerry bought me a watch.”
The threat of rejection is always there, but for now, Renee and Jerry can relax a bit and focus on other things.
One of the things they have to focus on is the bills.
When talk of a kidney transplant first began, the couple had health insurance, but that company refused to pay for a pancreatic transplant. So, along with the battery of medical tests and other preparations being made for an organ transplant, Jerry and Renee were also dealing with a mountain of paperwork and a pile of bills. While Renee was in the hospital recovering, Jerry was trying to deal with insurance nightmares.
“It is a horrible process,” Jerry said. “What a mess the insurance industry is.”
“You have to be your own advocate,” Renee added. “For people to have to try to go through all of that if they don’t have help, or while they are on their deathbed — it is shocking.”
Renee is on several medications, and the price tag on each of them is stiff — one is $2,800 per month, another is $1,800 a month and yet another is $2,200 a month. Because she is a transplant patient, some of that is covered by Medicare or Plan D, but there are a lot of bills to be paid.
“You might be middle class, but a major medical catastrophe can change your life,” Jerry explained. “We were lucky. We fought and got to this point.”
They have also had the help and advice from Rosalyn Carsten of Cottonwood County Family Services, who is always willing to answer questions and suggestions. And this weekend, friends and family, headed by good friend Diane Duerksen, are throwing a benefit.
Hosted by the Windom Lions Club, the pancake breakfast will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at the Windom Community Center, with a bake sale by the Bergen Bethany Lutheran Ladies and Windom American Lutheran Ladies. There will also be a silent auction, which ends at 12:30 p.m. Supplemental funds will be provided by Thrivent Lutheran, and a long list of local and area businesses have donated items to be auctioned off.
“It is hard for me to accept this,” Renee said. “I feel like I have already been given so much, with everything that happened. I am already in Thanksgiving mode.”
She said it is amazing how many people have their hands in getting the fundraiser put together, from Duerksen to Lions member Ken Cogley, who used to work at the ice arena where she skated as a child.
“People are all so dear — part of the web,” Renee said. “God just weaves us together and carries us.”
When she hits the one-year mark of her transplant, Renee plans on sending a letter through the national donor organization to the parents of the young man who saved her life. They, in turn, can then contact her back if they so choose.
“He may have had problems, but either he or his family chose to be part of the donor program,” she stated. “I think we become better so we can help someone else.”
For those who would like to help the family but cannot attend the benefit, donations can be mailed or dropped off at Bank of the West, PO Box 219, Windom 56101.