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Connected for life

September 16, 2018

BELLE FOURCHE — Twenty-five years after graduating from Belle Fourche High School together, Karen Carlton and James Helmberger will forever be connected after she donated her kidney to him last month.

Carlton, who currently lives in Rapid City, and Helmberger, who currently lives in Florida, both 42, grew up in Belle Fourche and attended school together since elementary school.

She said she followed Helmberger’s journey searching for a kidney donor on Facebook.

Helmberger needed a kidney transplant due to a hereditary condition called polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a disease that destroys the kidneys over time. Helmberger’s mother, grandfather, and extended family also suffered from the hereditary condition. Both his grandfather and mother, who’d received kidneys donated from deceased donors, eventually died from the condition.

Helmberger was diagnosed with PKD in his early 20s, and by 38, he’d reached stage 5 renal failure. At that point, Helmberger said he tried peritoneal dialysis. Peritoneal dialysis is a treatment that uses the lining of the abdomen called the peritoneum, along with a cleaning solution called dialysate, to clean a person’s blood. Dialysate absorbs waste and fluid from the blood, using the peritoneum as a filter.

“You do it every night through your belly while you sleep,” Helmberger said. “When I did that I was able to keep working, and it didn’t change my life a whole lot.”

The treatment worked well for Helmberger but he had to have two hernia repair surgeries because of it and had to go on hemodialysis. When a patient is on hemodialysis, a machine filters wastes, salts, and fluid from the patient’s blood.

But, an old back injury Helmberger incurred while a paratrooper in the U.S. Army in his 20s caused problems while on hemodialysis. Hemodialysis required him to sit in a chair for four hours at a time hooked up to the machine that filtered and cleaned his blood, which was very painful for him. Helmberger, who worked for NASA, had to stop working after beginning hemodialysis.

As a result, Helmberger began doing everything he could to find a donor.

“The average wait time to receive a kidney donation from a deceased donor is five years,” Helmberger, who’d had about a dozen surgeries in the last four or five years, said.

Due to the large waiting list, Helmberger embarked upon a search for a living donor who was both a match, physiologically, and willing to donate to him.

Throughout his search, Helmberger turned to social media to actively seek out possible donors with whom he’d be compatible. Until Carlton, Helmberger said he was beginning to lose hope.

A little more than a year ago, Carlton said, she started to pay closer attention to Helmberger’s search.

“It seemed like he would get another (potential) donor and he would say, ‘Another beautiful person is trying to see if they’re a match for me; let’s hope everything goes well through this process,’” she said. “And then after the last one, I was just reading about what he was saying on there (about a third donor not being a match) … something just hit me, and I felt like it was something that I was supposed to do (try to donate my kidney to him).”

“I messaged James a few days later to let him know that I would like to try to be a donor for him,” she said. “Naturally, he didn’t really know what to say; he was speechless and, at the same time, a little hesitant because he’d been let down before so many times.”

Helmberger couldn’t have imagined that the person who’d donate to him was a long-lost friend he’d had little contact with for decades.

“I never would have thought to ask a high school classmate,” Helmberger said. “To be able to take time from your life and make that kind of sacrifice is just absolutely amazing that she did it.”

The next step in the process involved a battery of tests to verify whether Carlton’s kidney was a good match for Helmberger.

Because Helmberger is a veteran, the transplant process was coordinated through the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas.

“It took a lot longer than I was hoping it was going to,” she said.

Following the initial tests she had done coming back positively, Carlton said, she traveled to Texas for three-days worth of testing.

“And that’s where they really put you through a lot of labs, CT scans, any test you can think of that they would need to do for a kidney,” she said.

After nearly a year of testing and correspondence, “they (hospital staff) finally gave me the good news that I was a perfect match,” she said.

Carlton’s left kidney was selected to be transplanted into Helmberger.

She wanted to tell Helmberger the news in a special way.

“I told him that I wanted him to be with me on (video chat) when I got the results back from the cancer screening,” Carlton said.

She told him that she was nervous because she’s got a family history of cancer and wanted his support when she received the news. That was not entirely true.

“When really I had already had the results, and I already knew that I was a perfect match and that it was going to happen,” she said. “So I (video chatted) with him and I told him that I lied; I didn’t want to go over my cancer results with him. And then I told him the good news … that he was getting my kidney.”

Helmberger’s response was priceless, Carlton said.

“And he just kind of stood there … and had this big grin on his face. I’ll never forget it,” Carlton said. “He was just kind of speechless; it was almost like it wasn’t real for him.”

Carlton and her husband were Texas-bound Aug. 9 to prepare for the surgery Aug. 14.

After final lab tests came back positively, the classmates had a free weekend together.

Helmberger, Carlton, and her husband caught a baseball game together.

“And just kind of hung out and did some stuff while we could before we were no longer going to be able to walk for a while,” Carlton said. “So that was nice”

On the day of the surgery, the pair shuttled to the VA hospital together.

“We just sat there and talked until we both got called in to get prepped for surgery,” Carlton said.

The procedures occurred almost simultaneously in operating rooms near one another.

“They coordinated our time perfect so that by the time my kidney was out, James was already ready to have the kidney put in,” Carlton said.

Helmberger had one kidney removed about a year before the transplant and the second taken out during the transplant procedure.

Carlton said the next day, Helmberger was was up and moving around “and doing better than I was.”

This is typical for organ donors and recipients, Carlton said.

“He goes from feeling very sick to almost like a million dollars,” she said. “Where I am a very healthy person and then you feel really sick because something is taken from you that your body is used to, so it’s normal.”

After several days in the hospital and a recovering period, Carlton returned home on Aug. 28.

The pair’s relationship is forever changed.

“I definitely can say that he’s a great friend,” Carlton said of Helmberger. “We speak daily. It’s not always about the kidney; we’ve learned more about each other and growing up and our mutual friends. It’s like 25 years of catch-up. It’s never a boring conversation.”

Another side effect Carlton expects Helmberger to be affected by is her choice in NFL football teams.

“James is a huge (Minnesota) Vikings fan,” Carlton laughed. “I despise the Vikings and I love Green Bay (Packers). So I’m like (to Helmberger), ’You know, you’re not going to be able to fight it for too long because it’s in you to love the Green Bay Packers and it’s going to happen.”

She felt peace about the decision from the beginning, Carlton said.

“I didn’t have to think twice about this at all; I was never worried or concerned the entire time, I just had complete faith that this was all going to work,” she said. “For whatever reason, I just had nothing but comfort knowing that I was doing this.”

Zero regrets, she said.

“I would do it again if I had another kidney.”

Carlton said she encourages others to consider becoming a living organ donor.

“That’s what I hope that people get from this, is knowing that it’s not as bad as maybe you think and having gone through this myself, I can actually talk to you about the whole experience,” she said. “So if anyone ever thought about it or is afraid of it, I can definitely let them know that it is absolutely worth it.”

The experience, which Carlton classified as humbling, inspired her husband to begin testing to becoming a potential donor.

“I feel good, and I think it’s just knowing that he’s (Helmberger is) going to be OK, and he’s going to be able to have a life like me where he knows that he can continue to watch his kids grow and have grandchildren and enjoy them,” she said. “Whereas, maybe if I hadn’t done this, he may not have had that opportunity.”

As for Helmberger, he said he’s ready to get back to Florida and into the swing of normal life.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said.

Although the average life of a donated organ from a living donor, Helmberger said, is about 10-15 years, he plans to do what he can to stretch it out.

“My goal is to make this last 20 years,” he said. “I’m so thankful to Karen (Carlton).”

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