FEATURE | Posted Oct. 8, 2014

Bonded by love and a lifesaving transplant

Lisa Flowers donated a kidney to give her daughter a normal adolescence

Lisa and Kaylyn Flowers, copyright UC Regents
Kaylyn Flowers experienced kidney failure at just 10 years of age, but returned to a fairly normal adolescence after an organ donation from her mother Lisa.

Lisa Flowers knew her 10-year-old daughter Kaylyn’s fatigue wasn’t normal, but the urgent call from the local doctor still took her aback.

Physicians had been testing the girl to determine if a recent eye problem was due to an autoimmune disease, and they hadn’t given Lisa reason to think anything was seriously wrong. Now they reported that Kaylyn’s kidneys had been failing, quietly but completely, and that she would likely require a transplant.

“It’s one of those moments in your life that you’ll always remember, one of those life-changing phone calls,” Lisa said. “The doctor said, ‘She won’t die from this, and we’ll do everything that we can, but it’s really serious and we need her seen within the hour. Go pack, and I’ll call you back.’ ”

Yet thanks to her mother’s love, Kaylyn would return to a fairly normal adolescence within just five months. Testing revealed that Lisa was a match to donate a kidney to her daughter, a major undertaking but one that would spare the girl years of disruptive dialysis treatments. 

UC Davis’ nationally renowned nephrology and transplant programs were available to perform the procedure a short drive from the family’s Roseville home.  

“Everything fell in line perfectly for us,” Lisa said. “The transplant team responded right away when we said dialysis was not for us. They came immediately, started the workup and it couldn’t have gone any easier.”

Quiet damage

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End-stage renal disease affects nearly a million Americans at any one time, but is much more common in adults than children. Kaylyn’s own problems stemmed from vasculitis, a condition that occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own blood vessels by mistake. While one type of the disease affected the large vessels in her eyes, another quietly damaged the smaller ones in her kidneys.

Kaylyn’s health system did not perform kidney transplants locally, so her doctors sent her to UC Davis Medical Center. The medical center’s kidney transplant program is the only in inland Northern California, and has grown to become one of the nation’s largest.

UC Davis experts stabilized Kaylyn and confirmed that dialysis or a transplant was in order. Kaylyn’s parents immediately chose the transplant path after the girl’s first experiences with hemodialysis, which involves several hours-long sessions per week for machine filtering of the blood. 
“Most people can’t really thrive on dialysis very long,” Lisa said. “You’re not that healthy while you’re doing it, you don’t feel well and you have a very restricted diet.”

Finding a match

Richard Perez, copyright UC Regents
UC Davis surgeon Richard Perez pioneered a type of laparoscopic transplant surgery, and colleague Christoph Troppmann is among a handful of U.S. surgeons now offering an even less-invasive procedure.

Finding a donor kidney can be a nerve-wracking undertaking as well. Living donors must be physically fit, free of conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and pass a battery of tests to assess blood, tissue and antibody compatibility. More than 100,000 Americans are currently waiting for a donor kidney.

“I was just praying that I could donate,” Lisa said. “I could not stand the thought of dialysis for her forever, and I knew there aren’t nearly enough donors. My whole focus was waiting to hear if I passed each test.”

The fit, healthy woman proved to be a match. UC Davis surgeons Richard Perez and Christoph Troppmann performed the transplant a few weeks later (or roughly three months after Kaylyn was first taken to UC Davis Medical Center), with Troppmann recovering the kidney via minimally invasive laparoscopy. Perez had pioneered a type of laparoscopic transplant surgery in the 1990s, and today Troppmann is among only a handful of U.S. surgeons offering an even less-invasive procedure with only a single incision.

Back at school

“It feels really good as a mom to be able to really make it work when things are dire, to be able to ‘fix it’ – but the biggest part of this was Kaylyn."
– Lisa Flowers

Lisa was hospitalized for three days after the procedure and Kaylyn a week. Transplant recipients often feel better fairly immediately because they are gaining something physically from the procedure, and Kaylyn returned to school and dance lessons just six weeks later. Recovery for donors can be slower since they are losing an organ, and Lisa estimates it was six months before she regained normal energy levels.

"(The minimally invasive procedure) is so much easier on the donor,” Lisa said. “Recovery is still painful, but you don’t really think about that when you’re doing exactly what you want to do for your daughter's health."

Transplant also requires weeks of assessments and tests plus years of follow-up visits, so having the UC Davis transplant center nearby was an advantage for the family.
“I really felt fortunate we could stay close, and our care at UC Davis has been top-notch,” Lisa said. “We haven’t had any problems and we’ve loved the doctors we’ve worked with.”

Quality of life

Learn more

To learn more about inland Northern California's only kidney transplant center, visit transplant.ucdavis.edu.

Transplanted live-donor kidneys can function for up to 20 years, and the procedure is considered a treatment versus a cure. Kaylyn must take powerful immunosuppressant drugs, and has already experienced an episode of rejection that scarred her new organ.

Lisa hopes research on artificial kidneys will come to fruition by the time her daughter faces dialysis again, but is glad Kaylyn can enjoy renewed quality of life during her childhood.

“It feels really good as a mom to be able to really make it work when things are dire, to be able to ‘fix it’ – but I think the biggest part of this was Kaylyn,” Lisa said. “She decided ‘I’m going to live, I’m pushing forward,’ and she still does that even when we have setbacks.

"She’s not a victim – she’s victorious.”

“I was really glad I got (the kidney) from my mom, because I have a really good relationship with her,” Kaylyn said. “And I’m so thankful I’m not on a waiting list.”