A week later, we gathered at U of M Fairview hospital at 6 am and Mekea was wheeled into surgery. She would spend four hours under general anesthesia. Four one-inch incisions would be cut into her lower abdomen so tiny probes and a camera called a laparoscope could be inserted, allowing surgeon Dr. Raja Kandaswamy to view her kidney as he operated. Her kidney would then be slipped into a clear plastic bag and removed through an incision.
We sat in the waiting room with our iPads and phones. Tim stood up frequently, checking the electronic screen hung on the wall to note the surgery’s progress and grabbing our coffee orders. Finally Kandaswamy, bespectacled and congenial, walked out and told us, “It went wonderfully. She has very favorable anatomy.” After a collective exhale, we chuckled at his report.
Mekea’s kidney was on its way to Amplatz. It had been wrapped in plastic and placed on ice inside a cooler so it could be driven to the operating room across the river, where Jack, his family, and surgeon Dr. Srinath Chinnakotla were waiting. “Mekea’s beautiful kidney just arrived safely,” Ali texted us. It was Jack’s turn.
“With kids, this type of surgery is technically challenging,” Chinnakotla says. “The technique has to be very precise—the vessels are smaller and finer—so your first shot has to be your best shot.” Over the next three hours, Chinnakotla sewed the kidney’s renal vein and artery to Jack’s receiving vein and artery, so that his blood would flow through Mekea’s kidney and start producing urine for him right away. “Pee is the key,” Harry posted on Facebook a few hours later, along with a picture of Jack’s full urine bag. Success.
Three days later, Jack’s bloating had gone down, his cheeks were pinked up, and he took his first steps post-op. The Certains posted a picture of him on Facebook, sitting up in bed, smiling and snacking.
“Kids have a tremendous rate of recovery,” says Chinnakotla, who describes Jack’s success story as the perfect triangle: a young patient with a wonderful attitude and a strong support system, a top medical institution to meet that patient’s complex needs, and an extraordinary person willing to step forward. “For a person to undergo a medical procedure not to benefit themself but to benefit someone else is the highest level of altruism,” he says. “Without Mekea’s gift, I wouldn’t have been able to do my job.”
When Mekea arrived home from the hospital, a banner made by a neighbor was strung up over the Duffys’ driveway—“612 Loves You”—which said it all. Gifts, letters, and meals streamed in, and people stopped in to say thanks. “Thank you, Mekea. What you did was a gift to all of us,” one person wrote.
It’s the unforeseen connections that strike Mekea when she looks back on that gift. “You never know how someone will appear in your life,” she says. “We have conversations with people every day, on the bus, at the park. Ali was open enough to share her story with me, and I was virtually a stranger. But we made a connection and look where it led.” Less than two weeks after the surgery, Mekea and I met at Linden Hills Park and waited along with a sea of other parents for our oldest daughters to return from summer camp. Mekea was still sore, she still had a few food aversions, and she wore a loose T-shirt to cover her bloated stomach and fresh scars. But her recovery was going well. She was driving her minivan again and getting back to herself.
“Look,” she said, turning toward the crowd. “It’s Jack!”
There he was, standing next to his mom. Upright, rosy cheeked, a shy smile blossoming on his face as he saw us approaching. His body was assimilating so well to Mekea’s kidney that he had been discharged from the hospital two weeks earlier than anticipated.
“Hi!” Mekea said, walking toward him and Ali. The moms embraced.
We stood quietly as the yellow bus pulled up, and our bedraggled kids poured out with their backpacks and mosquito bites and craft projects.
“Hungry, guys?” Ali said to Jack and Sam. “He can eat cheese puffs now, thanks to you.” Ali winked at Mekea and then we walked over to the playground together. We were just moms living in the same neighborhood who’d help each other if we could. As my sister had said when she made her decision, it was that simple.