ROCHESTER, Minn. - Justin Oelfke of Frazee, Minn., is recuperating and doing well after the whirlwind process of sudden notification, the rushed drive to Mayo Clinic, hours of testing to ensure the donor was a safe match, and nearly five hours of surgery that came with an unexpected kidney transplant.
The whole thing seemed kind of like a dream: Oelfke desperately needed a new kidney, but he has rare Type O-positive blood and there didn't seem to be much hope on the horizon. The waiting list for his blood type is three to five years, according to his fiance, Jamie Larson.
But he was unexpectedly bumped to the top of the list by a man he doesn't even know.
Oelfke, 33, suffers from a genetic disease (MPGN-2, often called Dense Deposit Disease) that caused his kidneys to not function properly and to grow very dense. He was diagnosed when he was 16. The last year he has been spending increasing amounts of time on dialysis.
But about two weeks ago, a catastrophic accident struck down a man who had specifically named Oelfke in an advanced medical directive as the recipient of his kidneys. It was not a family member, a friend or even an acquaintance. But the person had the same rare Type O-positive blood. He had somehow found out about Oelfke's plight, perhaps from news stories, and he had specified that if anything ever happened to him, Oelfke should get his kidneys.
The man died last Sept. 24, when Oelfke's family was notified and began their rush to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. "With a deceased donor, there's only so much time for a transplant," Larson said.
They got the surprise call from Mayo at 6 p.m. that night while they were visiting Justin's mother, Michelle Oelfke. She agreed to watch the couple's two children, Kenzie, 3, and Cole, 7. "They told us to pack for a month, just in case he had the surgery," Larson said. It's 275 miles from Frazee to the Critical Care Center at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and the couple got there about midnight.
For the next six hours, Oelfke underwent a series of tests, Larson said.
"Even though they had the same blood type, there was only a 50 percent chance of them actually doing the transplant," she said. "They have to run all these tests to make sure the body will not reject it ... The very last test they put Justin's blood and the donor's blood together to see if they would react well. If the blood does not react well, they know the kidney will not react well."
The test results were good. It was time for surgery.
It was all happening really fast, and it was a lot for Oelfke to take in. "He was in shock," Larson said. "This amazing gift ... so unexpected, and he had never had surgery before, it was all a lot to take in."
Oelfke's mom was able to make it there in time for the surgery, which took 4½ hours. For such a major operation, it went really well. "The kidney had one main hookup, some have multiple arteries off there that all have to be connected, so this was really simple, for them," Larson said. "Such an amazing gift, and it couldn't have gone any better ... the doctors said it's nothing less than a miracle."
Oelfke stayed in the hospital for the next three days, then he moved into a motel, where he will stay (with the help of various family members) for a minimum of four weeks.
He goes into Mayo every morning for blood draws, education and medical classes. A team of specialists handles his case, and for the first week after the surgery they kept asking the couple "'Are you sure you don't know who this (donor) is?' because it had gone so well," Larson said.
Mayo has a program that allows organ recipients to reach out to the donor family six months later, after the donor family has had time to grieve. Until then all information about the donor is kept under wraps.
"Then we can reach out and thank them," Larson said. "Justin wants to let everyone know how grateful he is for all the well wishes and support," she added. "It's been an emotional ride, but a good one. He is so grateful to the deceased donor family and hopes to one day meet them in person."
Since June, Oelfke has only been able to work part-time at his job driving school bus for Anderson Bus of Frazee, and now he'll have to take a year off from that, Larson said. He'll need to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life, and that medication suppresses the immune system, making it easier to get sick. Since a school bus full of active kids is not the most germ-free environment, "they (doctors) want him to take the season off," Larson said.
Meanwhile, Larson is supporting the family through her job at TS Recreational.
Not surprisingly, the bills have piled up, and Oelfke's co-workers at Anderson Bus are throwing a chili feed fundraiser for the family from 4 to 7 p.m. on Nov 18 at the Frazee Event Center.
Until then, donations are welcome at an account set up at United Community Bank in Frazee. Just send your check earmarked to Justin Oelfke.
"It's amazing how great the community has been through all this," Larson said. "The kidney took a little while to 'wake up' at first," she said. "But the labs have gone down, that's a sign the kidney is functioning properly. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed - it's a true miracle," she said.