Fernaus thankful for all who came together for them
Wed, 11/23/2016 - 12:51pm admin
He [God] had chosen her to help Dennis,” Janet said.
Thanksgiving Day is hailed nationally as a time to specifically appreciate things that are often taken for granted. One New Underwood family is acutely aware of the everyday grace extended to them that makes the very act of living possible.
New Underwood native Dennis Fernau was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2008. He had long battled hypertension (high blood pressure), and the hypertension had finally taken its toll on Dennis’ kidneys.
The kidneys are responsible for filtering impurities out of a person’s blood. Despite having fairly advanced kidney disease, Dennis exhibited no outward signs. It was not until his annual exams revealed heightened creatinine levels that the kidney disease was revealed.
Immediately, Dennis was placed under the care of a nephrologist (kidney specialist) in Rapid City, who continued to monitor the situation. In early 2015, though, Dennis and his wife, Janet, received the news that, without a kidney transplant, Dennis would need to begin dialysis soon.
Dialysis, the mechanical filtering of blood through a machine, requires a great deal of commitment from the patient. Once dialysis has been started, the dialysis patient must report for a four hour dialysis procedure three times a week for the rest of the patient’s life. The Fernaus, recently retired from lifelong education careers, are active in the community and are frequently on the road to visit their daughters and their families, as well as a wide network of former students spread across the nation. Being tied to home for dialysis treatments was not a step they wanted to take without having exhausted all their other options.
A call to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., revealed disheartening news: the Mayo Clinic had a policy against doing kidney transplants on patients over 70 years old. Refusing to accept that answer, the Fernaus next called Sanford Health in Sioux Falls. “Without hesitating, they sent me the paperwork to begin the process of getting me on the transplant list,” Dennis said.
In short order, the entire transplant team from Sanford came to Rapid City to meet with Dennis and Janet and to discuss everything that was involved in finding a donor and making the kidney replacement. The team’s support was nearly overwhelming. In one visit, Dennis and Janet met the surgeon, nephrologist, post-operation (post-op) nurse, pharmacist, nutritionist and social worker who would assume care of Dennis’ case.
This was not going to be a one-time encounter with this team. Created in 2007, and beginning with their first transplant in 2008, the team had performed 125 transplants before Dennis. “Not only have they picked up thousands of dollars of medical expenses, but Pharmacist Sarah has spent hours on the phone with our insurance company making certain that the medicines that Dennis needs are reasonably affordable,” Janet said.
The social worker on the team encouraged Dennis and Janet to be proactive in looking for a kidney donor. He urged them to use any means necessary, including social media, local newspapers, the Fernaus’ annual Christmas letter, and any other avenue they could to inform family, friends and former students of Dennis’ need for a kidney, in hopes of finding someone willing to go through the donor screening, matching and donation.
According to Dennis, 14-18 people contacted Sanford Health to see if they could be the potential donor who would grant life and health to Dennis. Some who contacted Sanford Health did it anonymously, while others let Dennis and Janet know they were in the running. “To each one, we are most grateful,” Dennis said.
In order to qualify for being chosen, the potential donor had to first reveal if he or she had high blood pressure or diabetes. An affirmative answer to either of these questions immediately discounted that person from the donor process. Numerous other tests for overall health had to be done for the donor in addition to checking for compatibility between Dennis’ body and the donor’s body. Dennis has O type blood, which means that, while he can donate blood universally, he is only able to receive blood or organs from other O blood types.
Soon, a series of miracles and examples of the impact the Fernaus had had on the lives of their students during their tenure in education began to be evident.
Amber (Simmons) Lyle, who had been one of the Fernaus’ students in Faith, was aware of the kidney disease diagnosis from early in the Fernaus’ journey. According to Janet, Amber shared with the Fernaus that, long before the need for the kidney transplant arose, God had placed Amber in the Fernaus’ lives for this very reason. “He [God] had chosen her to help Dennis,” Janet said.
Amber had grown to love and respect Dennis while still a student at Faith, Janet said. Amber called Dennis and Janet one day in 2015 to ask what Dennis’ blood type was. When he told her, she realized she could be a possible donor. With the wholehearted support of her husband, Amber called Sanford Health and asked to be placed on the donor list for Dennis. Ironically, of the 14-18 people who were willing to donate, Amber was the first one to begin the process.
Meanwhile, in July 2015, Dennis had begun to doctor with the Sanford Lab in Rapid City. The transplant coordinator begin the arduous task of arranging the numerous appointments that Dennis would need for all manner of donation-compatibility check-ups. The month of August was filled with doctor appointments for Dennis, who sometimes had as many as three appointments in one day. Once she had decided to pursue becoming the donor, Amber also began to go through a series of check-ups and tests to see if she was wholly compatible to donate. “She did not need to do nearly as many, as she was in perfect health,” Dennis said.
Amber drove from her small town in Iowa to Des Moines for some of her tests. She had to be tested on many levels of compatibility so markers in her blood matched markers in Dennis’ blood. She also had to complete a psychological examination. Finally, it was determined that she was, indeed, the perfect match.
Surgery was scheduled for March 22, 2016, over a year after Dennis had received the news that he was experiencing renal failure. Both Dennis and Amber had to check in to the hospital on March 21, where each did one more blood test before the actual transplant began.
Amber was wheeled into surgery at about 6:30 a.m. Surgery support staff came for Dennis a few hours later. The same team who had removed the kidney from Amber was ready to install it into Dennis. When he was wheeled into surgery, he again saw the lasting impact he had had on students as an educator.
“There were about a dozen people working to get ready for the surgery. They were all dressed in their surgery clothes so I could not see their faces. One of them walked over to my bedside and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Fernau. I’m Mary Jane from McIntosh’ – she was one of my former students when I was a principal at the McIntosh School,” Dennis said.
The surgery team, who had just spend several hours taking the donor kidney from Amber, now spent four hours replacing the kidney. After the surgery, Dennis was placed in the ICU for 24 hours.
Janet was impressed with the professional and personable demeanor of the Sanford Transplant team. “From the surgeon who met me after surgery and said it is okay to ‘hug me’ and told the girls and me that Amber’s kidney ‘pinked’ right up after being ‘plugged in’ and yes, ‘it is good that it is Holy Week,’ to the volunteer that gave us timely reports from the operating room, to the ICU nurses that this was their specialty, caring for transplants, to the entire nursing staff never missing a beat when it came to Dennis’ care and our comfort – it was a phenomenal choice we made when initially calling them,” Janet said.
Despite going through major surgery, Dennis said he was comfortable when he woke up in the ICU. In fact, according to Dennis, he did not have much pain throughout the surgery and recovery time.
Again, the Fernaus were pleased with the close attention their team paid to them following the surgery. Dennis was hooked to all manner of monitoring devices during the first 24 hours post-op, and there was a nurse with him the entire time. Following this time of close observation, Dennis was moved to a regular hospital room, where his vital signs were checked every two hours for the first three days, then moved to every four hours. During the week that Dennis remained in the hospital, he was received daily visits from the surgeon and chief nephrologist. He also was visited by the pharmacist, social worker, nutritionist and the head nephrology nurse. Dennis also met with both an occupational and physical therapist to ascertain if he could climb stairs and if he still had good eye-hand coordination.
Recovery for Amber, however, was not as comfortable. While laparoscopic surgery was all that was needed to put the kidney into Dennis, Amber’s incision had to be large enough for the surgeon to fit his hand inside. So, following the small incision, a balloon was inflated inside of Amber to enable the surgeon room to work.
According to Dennis, Amber experienced a great deal of discomfort during her hospital stay. “She had had three babies, and she said her discomfort was like having a baby, but without the relief time. The doctor told her this is normal for kidney donors,” Dennis said.
Amber and Dennis took advantage of the four days that Amber was in the hospital for some cherished socializing. Both needed exercise for healing, so Amber and Dennis took walks together, as well as enjoying visits with Janet and the Fernaus’ daughters in Dennis’ room.
After she was released from the hospital, Amber still had to remain in Sioux Falls for several days so she could continue to be monitored. Her husband and children were with her and formed her support team. When she returned home to Iowa, she kept in contact with Dennis and Janet via email and telephone calls. The personal cost of her choice to donate life to Dennis was not easy. She missed several weeks of work as she recuperated, and she had to return to Sioux Falls for a check-up two weeks after her surgery. She also had to have a six month check-up in Sioux Falls, so she and Dennis scheduled their check-ups together. Other than that, she has resumed her normal everyday activities, Dennis said.
Though the path to donating was not wholly smooth, Amber does not regret her choice. In correspondence with Janet, Amber said, “The sacrifice was so worth it and I can only hope that doing this will lead someone else to consider being a living donor. I truly believe that God blessed me with good health and two fully functioning kidneys for this purpose. Trusting in His plan for Dennis and me was not always easy, but I never once doubted that it was the right thing to do.”
The trip home to New Underwood did not come as quickly for Dennis and Janet. When Dennis was released from the hospital, he and Janet moved into an apartment that Sanford Hospital owns and has available for out of town patients and their families. Dennis needed to stay close to the transplant team to do lab work and see the doctor twice a week. During these visits, Dennis’ blood pressure, weight and incision site were checked for signs of infection or rejection of the kidney. Dennis is still required to take anti-rejection medication, as well as a cocktail of other necessities, and will have to take those for the rest of his life.
Eventually the frequency of Dennis’ labs was reduced. Currently, he does lab work in Rapid City once every two weeks, and returns to Sioux Falls for a doctor visit every three months. If all continues to go well, these visits will become even more infrequent.
Throughout this journey, Dennis and Janet have received overwhelming support from family and friends. Their daughters, Stephanie from Salt Lake City, Utah, and Rachelle from Manhattan, Kan., were able to be with them throughout the surgery and recovery time. Dennis and Janet’s granddaughter, Savannah, was with them as she recuperated from knee surgery and was on spring break from college. When they moved into the Sanford apartment, Dennis was able to rest in his recliner from home, ensconced in a crotched prayer shawl from the South Park Methodist Church. Then began a parade of visitors to encourage the Fernaus.
According to Janet, they received visits from friends nearby as well as friends from Mankota, Omaha, Lemmon, McIntosh, Rapid City, Spearfish, Sturgis, Pierre, Faith, Isabel and New Underwood. Those who could not visit showed their support in cards, phone calls, emails and texts. The Fernaus discovered – and are still discovering – that they were on many personal and corporate prayer lists. All of this combined to make the transplant work, Janet said.
“This was not the result of any single minded necessity, but of an enormous amount of uplifting from our family members and friends (students) from communities where we were involved in education. The outpouring of love, concern and prayer made this walk assured of success,” Janet said.