Last night's Carte Blanche Medical show focused on a man who underwent a life-saving kidney transplant and highlighted the dire need for organ donors in South Africa (watch the video here).
Imagine hearing at 22 that both your kidneys have stopped working. And that what this implies, is that you're facing a future of heavy medication, periods of extreme nausea, confusion and discomfort, and hospital admission even if you’ve just got the flu.
Most of us would wallow in self-pity. But Corné Linde (43) made a choice: her illness wouldn’t control her life.
At Durbanville High School, where Corné has been teaching for two decades, she is known as a vibrant, energetic woman who doesn’t compromise on her quality of work. Friends describe her as strong-willed, with a great sense of humour and a positive outlook on life. If you were to meet her, you’d never guess that she'd had a kidney transplant – let alone two.
Corné told us her remarkable story during an interview at her home, which she shares with close friend Ilze Boersma, as well as a Cocker Spaniel named Felix and a hamster called Buddy.
Early kidney damage
Corné was born with a condition that causes urine to push up from her bladder back into the kidneys. With a normal, healthy bladder, the tubes close as the bladder fills with urine, preventing it from flowing back into the kidneys.
Corné's condition is usually detected by parents and doctors at an early stage, as affected children usually suffer from recurring spells of high fever and pain. But Corné didn’t display any of these symptoms, and the condition silently continued to harm her kidneys.
By the time Corné was 12, however, her condition had made itself known, and she underwent corrective surgery. Unfortunately, it was too late. Her kidneys literally started shrivelling up as the years passed – something that began to affect her day-to-day functioning during her first year of teaching.
“At the time, I thought I was merely tired from teaching all day,” Corné recalls. “But I eventually realised that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t eat dairy or meat any more, and I just wanted to sleep.”
She was admitted to hospital, where extensive tests revealed that her kidneys were in chronic failure. Dialysis brought the toxin levels in her blood down, but this was only a temporary solution. Her doctors said she needed a new kidney.
Donor found within two weeks
Corné was fortunate. After a mere two weeks, a suitable kidney from an unknown donor became available. It matched her blood type and she was prepped for surgery.
All went well.
“After the operation, I felt so good that nothing was too great a challenge... I was so busy! The only downside was that I had to take medication twice a day. The side effects meant I picked up a lot of weight, and my skin was affected. Another possible side-effect - although this didn’t happen to me - is that it may also lower the hairline on your forehead.”
In all other respects, Corné led the normal, active life of a woman in her 20s.
Kidney rejected after 16 years
But this wasn’t the end of her journey to health. In 2003, 16 years after the transplant, her body started rejecting the kidney. Once again, she became seriously ill and friends and family feared the worst.
The toxins started to affect Corné’s brain and vision. “It felt as if I was looking at the world through a layer of custard,” she says. She suffered from debilitating migraines and couldn’t eat or drink much. As before, she just wanted to sleep, but when she lay down, she couldn’t breathe. Her skin went numb.
At work, Corné tried to put on a brave face, but when nobody was looking, she dragged herself up to her classroom on the second floor. “I told the principal that I was on borrowed time.”
At that stage the toxins in Corné’s blood were more than eight times the normal limit.
A donor in the family
As Corné’s health deteriorated during 2003, her younger sister, Santie Terreblanche, made a brave move. She went for blood and DNA testing with the aim of finding out if she could donate one of her kidneys to her dying sibling.
According to Santie, it wasn't a difficult decision. “The more difficult part was to explain to my family (a husband and three children) why I wanted to do it. I had to make sure that I could rely on their support,” she says.
Of Corné’s four sisters, Santie was the only one who had the same blood group. “But the remarkable thing was that her DNA was almost identical to mine. This is something that only really happens in twins,” says Corné.
Santie was a perfect match, and the decision was made. The transplant procedure was immediately scheduled at the Chris Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape Town.
Photo: Santie Terreblanche (left) and Corné Linde (right).
The day before the two sisters were to be operated on, they lay side by side in hospital, both in good spirits and feeling well.
Santie’s kidney was removed first – a procedure that involved an extremely painful 28cm-long incision. Then it was Corné’s turn. While Santie was recovering in another room, her kidney was moved over to Corné’s body.
The transplanted kidney started to produce urine on the operating table as soon as it was connected to the bladder and the blood supply – something that normally only happens after an initial period of adaptation to the new body.
A different world
When Corné opened her eyes in the isolation unit soon thereafter, her world had changed: “My skin was tingling – the numbness had gone. And when I closed my eyes, I saw strips of colour. It was as if I could dream in colour again. I also started remembering things that had happened in the preceding six months – things that I couldn’t remember at the time because my brain was too fuzzy.”
Santie recalls that Corné called her from the isolation unit at 5am the next day to tell her that she felt great. Santie closed the conversation with a remark that they should write a book on the experience. Then she went back to sleep, only to be woken by another call from Corné an hour later to say that she had already started making notes for the book. Santie realised that the old Corné was back.
Within 24 hours of the transplant, the toxin levels in Corné’s blood had returned to normal. Both sisters stayed in hospital for a few days and both recovered remarkably.
Now, five-and-a-half years later, Corné says she has never felt better. With her newfound energy, she did a 23km one-day hike in the Drakensberg, and she regularly goes for walks, plays squash and has a busy social life. She is also able to enjoy her favourite activities, such as camping and bird watching.
But while she’s as active at school as always, Corné has decided to make a few adaptations to her lifestyle. From next year, she’ll be doing computer training for companies – something that will give her a little more time out. “Our family doesn’t have any ‘spare parts’ left,” she quips. “I need to take things a bit more slowly... The problem is that I feel so healthy that I sometimes forget that I can’t do everything.”
Corné still needs to watch her health. Her immunity will always be compromised, and when she picks up an infection (even if it’s just the flu) her health, and her kidney, is at risk.
But in all other respects, her sister’s kidney has given her life.
Corné would like to alert readers to the fact that they can make a difference by becoming organ donors themselves. And to those who are waiting for suitable donor organs, she says: “Remember, I was there too. There’s hope – you can lead a normal life.”
For more information, contact the Organ Donor Foundation of Southern Africa on 0800 22 66 11 or visit their website on www.odf.org.za.
- (Carine Visagie, updated August 2009)
How is a kidney transplant performed?
Where do the kidneys for transplantation come from?