The holidays are especially happy this year for Don Dixon and his family. Don underwent a successful kidney transplant Dec. 6. His new kidney was donated by his son, Kevin.
"He gave me the gift of life," Don said.
Don, 54, was diagnosed in 1985 with IgA nephropathy, the most common form of kidney failure. The disease is caused by deposits of protein in the "glomeruli," or filters of the kidney. People who suffer from the disease nearly always end up having to undergo dialysis, and it often leads to complete kidney failure.
Doctors think Don's case was brought on by stress. When he was diagnosed in 1985, his kidneys had shrunk considerably and were functioning at about 40 percent of normal.
"I was told that by 1987 I would need a transplant," Don said. But he was able to slow the progression of the disease through diet and medications. Still, by the mid-1990s his kidney function was down to about 15-20 percent of normal.
"I was able to function very well on that," Don said. But then, at the beginning of July, Don discovered the body of acquaintance Eric Tamiyasu whom police later determined had been murdered days before. The case remains unsolved.
"My stress level just shot up," Don said. Within the next few weeks, his kidney failure accelerated and by August, he was down to 6 percent of normal function.
His doctor placed him on peritoneal dialysis, which he underwent four times a day.
He felt "tremendously" better with the dialysis, but his doctor told him that the time had come for him to "get on the list" for a kidney transplant -- which can take up to two years.
"My first choice was to wait for a donor," Don said. But his sons Kevin, 24, and Brian, 26, didn't like that idea. They were worried about the wait, and about the lifespan of a kidney from a non-living donor -- about 10 years.
"My brother and I decided to get tested," Kevin said. When Don's health began deteriorating, Kevin had been in Sweden working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. He returned to Pittsburgh, where he attends Carnegie-Mellon University, and underwent tests -- mostly "peeing in a bunch of things," he said -- to determine if he would be a compatible donor. Brian, who lives in Corvallis, shuttled back and forth between there and Portland to undergo similar tests.
Both Brian and Kevin were found to have matches with their father in several vital proteins that would help make a transplant successful. The only difference was in their blood types: Kevin was Type A and Brian Type O.
"The transplant team" -- after the two brothers had "hashed it out one night," according to Kevin -- "made the decision to select Kevin because of the blood type issue," Don said. With Type O blood, Brian was a "universal" donor; if something were to happen to Kevin down the line -- if he needed a kidney -- Brian would be able to help him.
Kevin returned to Oregon about a week before the transplant was scheduled. On the day of the transplant, Kevin and Don were prepped for surgery in adjoining rooms at Portland's Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital.
Doctors performed Kevin's surgery through "laproscopic removal," a minimally invasive technique that results in a much quicker recovery time than normal. They removed his kidney with only two half-inch incisions and one four-inch incision.
As Kevin's kidney was being removed, doctors began opening up Don's belly. Kevin's kidney was shuttled quickly from one room to the other and, in the span of only a few minutes, was placed in Don.
"It started working immediately," Don said. Kevin's kidney was so healthy that the normal adjustment period for a transplanted kidney to begin functioning was almost non-existent.
Kevin was out of the hospital in 48 hours, and Don followed three days later. "Normal is 7-10 days," Don said. "The doctors were amazed."
Kevin said he never had a chance to be nervous about the surgery -- or about giving up one of his kidneys. Don, however, had been "scared to death about it.
"I never would have agreed to it if (Kevin's surgery) hadn't been laproscopic," Don said. The first words Don spoke after waking up from surgery were to ask about Kevin.
"I wouldn't believe them when they said Kevin was fine," Don said. So nurses bent the "no visitors" rule and let Kevin into Don's recovery room.
Don's body has showed no signs of rejecting Kevin's kidney. His dose of anti-rejection medication is set to be reduced today -- ahead of schedule -- though he will take meds for the rest of his life.
He plans to be back working full time at his two businesses -- The Mac Shack and IPM Services, an orchard consulting company -- soon after the first of the year.
"You don't realize how sick you felt until you start to feel better," Don said. In the three weeks since his transplant, Don has felt better than he has in years.
"The quality of life I've been given is tremendous," he said. As for Kevin, he feels fine and will return to Pittsburgh after the holidays. His one kidney will increase in size and functioning capacity over time to make up for the missing one.
Don wants to use his case to get the word out about the importance of kidney donation -- especially with the non-invasive laproscopic technique now available.
"There are enough living donors to fill 100 percent of the need -- with no effects on the donor," he said. He hopes people will become more aware of the problems of patients with kidney failure -- and the relative ease with which, through donation, they can change a life.
"It's humbling," Don said. "This kidney will outlast my body."