- Cullman, Alabama

July 7, 2013

Lifesaving friendship

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— “It is often said good friends will give you the shirt off their back, but what about a friend who gives you a kidney?” asked Jan Burden, 56, of Baileyton. “My friend, Rhonda gave me my life back," says Jan.

Jan and Rhonda Humphries, 53, go all the way back to Ryan Elementary School. They also went to Hebron Church of Christ in Hulaco as children.

Then they were separated for a while, as Jan went to Fairview High School and Rhonda went to Brewer High School.

In 1979, Jan married Stan Burden. The couple has two daughters, Stacy Cantley and Sarah Beth Burden.  

In the meantime, Rhonda married Steve Sharp in 1980, and they have two sons, Jared and Jorden.

“Over the years, our visits consisted of church homecomings, chance meetings in town, or ballgames at Fairview where Stan and Jan taught, and more and more funerals,” said Jan.

At the age of 35, Jan had her second child, Sarah Beth. At her one year check-up, her doctor discovered that Jan had Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) and sent her to a nephrologist. “I had eleven cysts on my kidneys, which would grow and eventually impair kidney function,” Jan explained. “Three years ago my nephrologist- Dr. Gifford in Cullman told me I would have to go on dialysis if I did not get a kidney.”

Jan would require three, 3-4 hour dialysis sessions every week. She was put on kidney waiting lists at UAB and Vanderbilt and began seeing her nephrologist quarterly. Dr. Smith surgically installed a fistula in her arm so it would be ready in case dialysis was needed.

Jan’s family members were evaluated but either they were not matches or were ruled out because of complications.

Her kidney function declined to six percent. She was now seeing her nephrologist monthly. Her joints hurt all over.

At the funeral visitation for her father, Walter Hester, she talked with Rhonda. When Rhonda heard the situation, she told Jan, “I’ll be tested!”

During that long month they talked every day. Jan was almost a shut-in, with no energy at all. Rhonda and Jan grew closer during this time than ever before.

“Those are the most precious words I will always remember,” said Jan. “Rhonda called to make arrangements for her evaluation. She called the nurses almost every day explaining the urgency of my situation until she got an appointment pushed up to the next few days.”

I will never forget when she called and said, “I’m a match!” said Jan. The match was not absolutely perfect, but nearly so. The surgery was scheduled at UAB on April 29th.  

The transplant lasted several hours. Jan felt better almost immediately. “They all told me that my color was much better, not so sallow, and I had more energy,” said Jan.

Rhonda went to a private room afterwards and was released after three days to go home. Jan remained in the hospital a week and was transferred to UAB Townhouse for daily outpatient care.

A few days later she was readmitted for a kidney infection from her old kidney and remained in the hospital for three days for IV antibiotics.  

The new kidney was working perfectly.

Back in the townhouse for another week, she was readmitted with similar symptoms. This time it was pneumonia and a urinary tract infection.

After three and a half weeks, she finally was allowed to go home. Jan says Stan has been there for her through the whole ordeal. “He went every time I had any evaluation or doctor’s appointment,” she said.  “He was always very supportive.”

For now Jan is on several anti-rejection medications, and is still susceptible to infection. She has learned to avoid crowds, but her life is on a great upswing. “I am just so thankful!” she said several times.  “April 29th will always be a special day for us. It was the day Rhonda gave me life and became my best friend!”

Rhonda is the business manager at Childhaven, a ministry in Cullman that provides care for orphans, foster children, and adoption services. “She is a very caring person,” Jan concluded. “I will always be grateful to her.”

 Jan’s lifestyle has changed; she has to be scrupulous about using hand sanitizer, and staying away from anyone with any type of illness.

It never occurred to either of them that the transplant might fail. “We kept ourselves very positive; we never let ourselves think otherwise.”

Doctors tell Jan that she is doing very well, although the first six months is crucial about catching viruses or colds because it could make her body reject the kidney. “I can’t be around children who have been vaccinated because of the live virus, so we put a note on our door explaining about what was at risk.”

She has to leave off grapefruit and grapefruit juice, and Satsuma oranges, “Because they interact with the anti-rejection medication,” she explained. “I will have to take the anti-rejection meds for the rest of my life.”

Jan has been out to eat several times since the transplant, to birthday parties and back to church. “I hadn’t gone anywhere at night in years,” she said. “I was very anxious to get out and do things, but I’m not supposed to stay out of crowds because of the danger of infection.”

For now, she just remains so very thankful that there are people like Rhonda in the world.