It was 1988 and Sue Venteicher, (2016 Nebraska Mother of the Year) was a young mother working her first job She was a part-time phlebotomist at a hospital in Clarkson Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska that specialized in kidney transplants. Patients around her received care and sometimes died waiting for a transplant.
“It’s hard to watch people you care about fighting for their lives. I remember looking at kidney donors back then and thinking to myself, ‘I could do that,’ but I was young and still having babies,” she said.
February 2017, Venteicher found herself laying on a cot in a kidney transplant unit. She would be the first anonymous donor in a kidney donation chain that would save nine lives.
“Have you ever seen a kidney patient? It’s rough,” she explained as we sat down to talk. I could hear the compassion in her voice. The kidney’s main function is to filter waste out of our bodies. Patients with kidney failure are slowly poisoned to death by toxins in their bloodstream. “Kidney patients almost always feel like crap,” said Venteicher. They begin a process called dialysis where three times a week they spend five hours hooked up to an artificial kidney while their blood is filtered and cleaned. The hours after dialysis are exhausting and the hours prior to dialysis are filled with weakness, shortness of breath, lethargy, swelling, and confusion, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Patients with kidney failure often struggle with their blood pressure and it is not uncommon for them to code red or have their heart stop suddenly.
There are over 80,000 people on the kidney transplant list, according to the Living Kidney Donor Network. The list for those needing kidneys continues to grow, but the list of available donors is not growing. Thirteen people die each day while waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant.
Sue Venteicher, the 2016 Nebraska Mother of the Year, had served for years on the Board of Education with her friend, Principal David Peters. She has become the trainer and educator for phlebotomy in the pathology department of the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, and she got to know his son, Michael, who came to her clinic often for routine lab work.
Michael was born with a heart defect and received a heart transplant as a baby. He lived a happy and normal life until high school graduation when his kidney started to fail. Determined to pursue his college plans, Michael moved to California and arranged for medical equipment in his college dorm room. He would hook himself up to the dialysis machines each night before bed and he tried to live a normal life. Michael’s story tugged at Venteicher’s heart and she quietly decided to find out if she was a candidate to be a live kidney donor for Michael. Venteicher passed donor mental and physical health screenings but was not a match for Michael.
They next turned to the Paired Kidney Exchange Program, designed by Alvin Roth, Ph.D., who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for developing what is called the. This program was designed especially for organ pairs like Venteicher and Michael, patients who needed a kidney and who had a living donor willing to donate but were not a match. Mathematical algorithms would pair Venteicher and Michael with another donor/patient pair where the donor matched Michael and Venteicher matched the patient. They would exchange living-donor kidneys and both patients would receive a transplant. Sometimes the kidney exchange would create a chain where donor A would give to patient B and donor B would give to patient C and donor C would give to patient A.
Tragically, kidney weakness began to affect Michael’s heart and he was placed on double organ transplant lists. Michael Peters died at the age of 20 before transplant donors could be found. Sue received a heart-wrenching email from his father informing her that they “lost their dear boy.”
When the hospital called to ask Venteicher if she would still consider being an altruistic kidney donor, she felt in her soul that “every person deserves the right to live.” She called the Peters family just one week after Michael’s death to tell them that she was continuing the donor matching process in Michael’s honor.
Her family was supportive of her scheduled surgery. One five-year-old granddaughter proudly announced that her Grammy was giving up one of her kidneys because “Apparently, some people think they need three kidneys.” Venteicher didn’t tell her mother (a nurse who had spent her career caring for failed transplant recipients in the ICU) until months after her surgery was complete.
Unbeknownst to Sue Venteicher, she was the first in a kidney exchange chain that would save nine lives. As an altruistic donor who did not have an intended recipient, her kidney donation made it possible for 5-year-old Andy Aranda, who had no living donor, to receive the last kidney in this donor chain.
In the thank you letter from the man who received Venteicher’s kidney, he said that the hardest part of being sick was looking into the eyes of his lovely wife and seeing nothing but pain, worry, and concern. He explained how in the days since his surgery, he has looked into her eyes and has seen hope and excitement for the future.
Sue Venteicher did not donate her kidney to be recognized as a hero. She donated her kidney because she is a genuinely good person who knew she could save a life with her sacrifice. Over the past year, she has dedicated herself to spreading awareness of organ donation.
“One life is not more important than another,” Sue Venteicher explains, “I believe we can always do something for somebody else. Donating my kidney has been a wonderful, life-changing experience. It is not the things you have that matter, it is the things that you do for other people.”
Five-year-old Andy Arana has started running and playing with his siblings since his kidney transplant.
A Facebook post from Nebraska Medicine explains that “He loves horses, superheroes, riding bikes and playing with his three sisters and two brothers. Andy didn’t have any living donor options and was able to receive a living kidney through the selfless acts of the previous nine living-donors. This all started with the action of one anonymous donor, Sue Venteicher.”
February 14th is National Donor Day, an observance day originally designated in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Saturn Corporation and its United Auto Workers to raise awareness for organ, eye, tissue, marrow, platelet and blood donation. Look into becoming a donor. Visit donatelifenw.org and organdonor.gov for more information on organ donation.