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Rob and Karen Waddell, members of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, have no doubt about the existence of guardian angels. In fact, they have names for theirs: Hugh and Kim Haydon.
The Haydons and the Waddells met about five years ago when their daughters started kindergarten together. The kids stayed close, and the moms eventually became friends. And in May, the fathers of the two families forged a bond that will last a lifetime when Hugh Haydon gave one of his kidneys to Rob Waddell.
The events that led to the transplant this spring involve a great deal of sacrifice and generosity — from the gift of an organ to the various ways parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes helped both families.
Rob Waddell was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD) when he was a child. The only tangible symptom for decades, though, had been high blood pressure that was controlled with medication.
His mother also had the hereditary disease. And he knew, like her, that one day he may need a new kidney. But he expected, as statistics had shown, that day would come in his late 40s or 50s.
So when his specialist said Rob would need a kidney transplant within a few years and wanted to start preparing his body for dialysis at 38, the Waddells were taken aback.
Karen was pregnant at the time with their fourth child, Bailey who is now 3 years old. And life was pretty hectic already. The couple also hadn’t told anyone about Rob’s condition.
One morning soon after the bad news dropped, Karen confided in Kim Haydon.
“I was so upset, I needed to tell someone,” she said during an interview at their home last week. “It was very overwhelming.”
Kim said she went home after Karen told her about Rob’s condition and talked to her husband Hugh about it. Immediately, Hugh said he would be willing to give Rob a kidney if he was a match.
“He didn’t seem to have any hesitation,” said Kim of her husband.
Karen and Rob Waddell said neither of them ever expected him to receive an organ from a live donor. Since the disease is hereditary, Rob’s siblings weren’t good candidates. One of his sisters, who did not have the disease, had already donated a kidney to another family member. And the likelihood of a friend being a match seemed slim.
Nevertheless, three years later, in 2008, Rob’s doctor said it was time to put his name on a donor list. But before he could be placed on the list, his right kidney would have to be removed so he would be ready to receive the new organ. And he would have to go on dialysis until an organ was found — up to three years. Rob Waddell knew how hard dialysis was; he’d seen his mother become weak and sickly under its effects.
Thanks to Hugh Haydon, though, Rob didn’t have to go down that long and unpredictable road.
After having three years to think about it, Hugh Haydon said his offer still stood. He was the first to be tested for compatibility, and he was a match. Rob said his niece and a close friend both offered to be tested, too, but the hospital wasn’t interested in further testing.
Rob said that when he first heard about Hugh’s offer, “I was really appreciative, but I never imagined it would be a match.”
“This has been a wonderful experience,” he said, despite the hardship he and Hugh endured. “It changed my perspective of mankind. It’s a huge gift. It’s a selfless act.”
Hugh Haydon said he sees it differently.
“You look at Rob and Karen and the kids and you think, ‘How can I not do it?’ You don’t have to think about it very hard,” he said. “This was really a selfish act. I got more out of this, I think, than Rob got. What else are you going to do in your life that’s as significant? You get a lot back making a donation like this.”
He and his wife Kim want people to know that becoming a live donor is safe, and they want to encourage other people to consider it.
“The risk is very minimal,” and the process of testing and screening donor candidates — that takes about six months — is very thorough, said Kim Haydon. “You have the opportunity to feel very, very comfortable with the process.”
And, she said, if the potential donor decides not to go through with the donation, the recipient won’t be told why; they’ll simply be told the donation will not work.
Hugh’s recovery from the donation, which took place in Chicago, took less than a week, they noted. The surgery was conducted on a Thursday, he walked 10 blocks to Mass in Chicago on Sunday, and they were home in Louisville by Monday. On Wednesday, he was back at work.
Rob’s recovery has taken a slower pace. His transplant was part of a study conducted at Northwestern University on adult stem cell transplants. When they transplanted Hugh’s kidney, they also transplanted some of his stem cells.
The hope is that within a year the stem cells will have taken hold in Rob’s body and eliminate the need for immunosuppressant drugs. At last check, the stem cells were working at 100 percent — very good news, said Rob.
But as part of that procedure, Rob had to undergo chemotherapy so his own immune system wouldn’t reject the new stem cells. He lost his hair and about 35 pounds in the course of treatment.
His recovery is progressing, though. He returned to work full time at Brown Forman July 27. And he’s attended some of his children’s’ sporting events.
Rob spent six weeks after the surgery in Chicago. His wife Karen spent four weeks there with him while her mother (who took unpaid leave from work) kept their four children: Casey, 9, Robby, 8, Christian, 6, and Bailey, 3.
The Haydon’s family took care of their youngest children, Sydney, 10 and Spencer, 7. The eldest, Sabra, is 25.
And in the midst of this, parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes helped take the kids to activities and brought meals to both families for several weeks. They also donated more than $1,000 in gift cards to help defray their expenses in Chicago.
Audrey Truax, pastoral associate at the parish, said Hugh Haydon’s gift and the parish’s efforts “are at the heart of what stewardship is.”
“Walking that with them definitely made us closer,” she noted. “It involved so many families.”
Karen Waddell said she and Rob feel overwhelmed by the generosity they’ve received.
“We’ve cried a lot together,” she said of the Haydons. “What they did for us was such a selfless act of love. The care that’s been shown us has been unconditional.”
Kim Haydon said she believes God had a hand in the ordeal.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence (that Hugh was a match),” she said. “It could have been someone else Karen could have talked to that day. I think there’s a bigger plan.”
This article was originally published in The Record, and is reprinted here with permission.