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A beautiful kidney

A FATHER'S ORGAN DONATION TO SON GOES SMOOTHLY For much of Lance Wittleder's 11 months, he has struggled with illness and dealt with almost constant kidney dialysis. He got a chance for a more normal life Thursday, thanks to his father's donated ...

A FATHER'S ORGAN DONATION TO SON GOES SMOOTHLY

For much of Lance Wittleder's 11 months, he has struggled with

illness and dealt with almost constant kidney dialysis.

He got a chance for a more normal life Thursday, thanks to his

father's donated kidney and the medical staff at the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital Fairview in Minneapolis.

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That was the day Eric and Stephanie Wittleder of Duluth had been

waiting for since at least November, when he started full-time dialysis.

When medications failed, they knew he would need a new kidney, and that Eric would be the donor.

The transplant date was a moving target.

First they had to get Lance up to 16 pounds, which was a struggle until he went on dialysis. That was done five days a week at the Minneapolis hospital, two hours from their home in Duluth. They lived either out of suitcases or in a small apartment in the Ronald McDonald House.

Then they needed to get Lance healthy. He had to fight two lung infections before a transplant date was set for May 17. But after a severe bout of flu, it was rescheduled to May 23.

Only 13 hours before that surgery, it was canceled. Tests showed Lance had potential liver problems. His enzyme levels rocketed to four times normal. For the next month and a half, doctors were baffled.

Then, somehow, his liver function improved and returned to normal. A new date was set but his parents were cautious, never quite believing the surgery would happen.

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Lance was run through a battery of tests on Wednesday. Each pointed to the same conclusion: He was ready for the transplant.

TRANSPLANT DAY

Eric's day started at 5:30 a.m. Thursday as he lay by himself in a pre-op room. Though he did not say it and was trying his best to joke and laugh, it was clear he was feeling uneasy.

``Give him some time,' a doctor said after visiting with him. ``He's nervous.'

The risk of death for a donor in transplant surgery is one in 8,000, according to Dr. Rainer Gruessner, a surgeon who worked on the transplant.

``By operating on a healthy individual, he becomes a patient,' Gruessner said. ``Donors are the most important patients in the hospital.'

Eric wasn't thinking about the danger to himself, though. His mind was on his son.

``Your biggest fear is something is going to go wrong,' he said.

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``You just hope someone's watching over an 11-month-old child, trying to give him a better life.'

For Lance, life on almost daily dialysis is not an easy nor a healthy one, Gruessner said. If it weren't for his father, Lance could have waited an average of six to seven years for a kidney. From 6 percent to 10 percent of patients die waiting for a transplant, he said.

About 7 a.m., Lance and Stephanie came down from their room into the pre-op area. Lance had slept through the night, waking on the elevator ride down, nothing but smiles.

``I'm smiling,' Stephanie said for him, ``because I'm finally going to get my daddy's kidney.'

As his family sat in the room, Eric held Lance one more time before surgery, whispered in his ear and gave him a gentle kiss on his forehead, holding it there until he had to let go.

``Goodbye, sweetie,' Stephanie said to Eric. ``See you in a couple of hours.'

About an hour later, it was Stephanie's turn to say goodbye to Lance.

She accompanied him down the hall as far as she could, and then heard him moan for mom as he continued on without her.

And then it was time to wait.

`GET STEPHANIE!'

The family -- Eric's mother and stepmother, and Stephanie and her parents -- sat in a room a few hundred feet away from the surgery, looking for any distractions.

``The waiting is just the worst,' said Stephanie's father, Roger Sundin, slumped in a chair.

Hours passed slowly. The family jumped anytime a phone rang or a doctor walked through the door. Though they got periodic updates, everyone was waiting for the final news.

Stephanie's mom, Rose, brought their two-year-old daughter, Hana, over from the Ronald McDonald House. Hana was restless, so at 12:30 p.m. Stephanie took her around the hospital in a wagon -- just as Dr.Gruessner walked through the door, asking to talk to the Wittleder family.

``Someone get Stephanie!' yelled Eric's mother, Jackie Wittleder.

Once she was tracked down, the doctor delivered the news:

``Your son has a beautiful kidney.'

There were no problems. Both father and son were OK. Though the kidney was still being sewn in, ``if nothing unexpected happens, he should be fine,' he said.

The risk of rejection is minimal. Major complications are rare and happen in fewer than 2 percent of kidney recipients, Gruessner said.

And, because he was getting his father's kidney, his body's immune system will only attack part of it. The kidney should stay viable for 17 to 20 years.

LONG ROAD AHEAD

Stephanie allowed herself a moment to cry and embrace her mom.

Despite Thursday's success, Lance has a lot of work to do.

He will have to learn to eat. He has been fed through a tube for most of his life and has never really experienced hunger. And because his bladder hasn't worked since March, Stephanie said, the real test of his kidney function will be if ``Lance learns to pee.'

He will be in the hospital for another two weeks and the Ronald McDonald House for two weeks after that, close enough to the hospital for tests every three to four days.

Then he'll be able to go home. Because of the medical bills, Eric and Stephanie sold their house, a deal that will close Aug. 1. They plan to rent and try to get back on their feet. Neither has been able to hold a job in months, and Eric will have to wait at least six weeks before he can look for work again.

And they know that if something should go wrong with Lance's new kidney, they'll have to go back to Minneapolis for treatment.

For the rest of his life, Lance and his parents will have to be very protective of his stomach. Prune belly syndrome made his kidneys and ureters fail, and Lance doesn't have stomach muscles. A hit from a baseball could destroy his kidney.

``That's OK; I'll take those worries,' Stephanie said. ``That's better than the alternative of trying to survive on dialysis.'

And they are, they believe, a step closer to a normal life.

``I look forward to the day I don't have to worry. . . . I want to worry about other things, not whether he's going to make it,' Stephanie said.

``We'll always celebrate this day.'

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