BY GABE LICHT
MILWAUKEE, WI For more than 30 years, Julie Kroupa knew she would need a new kidney. She received it April 7, thanks to Delano Wine & Spirits manager Nancy Drumsta.
The two have been friends for nearly 40 years.
“We lived next door to each other in a small town,” Kroupa said. “. . . We just became really good friends. We would go four or five years without seeing each other, but we’d always circle back around.”
Drumsta’s family was especially supportive of Kroupa after she lost her mother to polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, when she was 22.
“I spent a lot of Christmases with them in my early 20s,” Kroupa said. “They always took me in.”
When Kroupa learned her mother had PKD, she suspected she had the disease, as well. Her suspicion was confirmed when she was 26.
She wasn’t alone.
“It’s a genetic disease in my family . . . I had a 50-50 chance of getting it,” Kroupa said. “I had a total of six siblings, and they all had it.”
Kroupa’s goal was to stay as healthy as possible to get her kidneys to last as long as possible and avoid dialysis.
She stayed active, completing three triathlons.
But, in 2014, it became apparent that she would need a new kidney. She began the process that October.
“By January or February of 2015, I had gone through all the testing to get on the transplant list,” Kroupa said. “You have to be viable on the transplant list before you can look for donors.”
One of Kroupa’s friends appeared to be a good match for Kroupa.
“She went through the whole process before me, and was disqualified right at the end of the testing,” Drumsta said. “Myself and another gal Julie went to church with were testing at the same time. I started testing here in November of 2015, and then went to Milwaukee for two days in January for the final testing.”
The screening process is incredibly extensive.
“They do X-rays, ultrasounds, blood work, urine work, a lot of lab work, and a family history questionnaire,” Drumsta said. “They work really hard on the donor’s behalf to make sure the donor is healthy enough to do this.”
Drumsta went through additional testing until her surgeon, Kroupa’s surgeon, and the kidney specialist were all comfortable that she was a good match.
“The other woman who got tested has decided to find someone who needs a kidney and give it to someone else,” Kroupa said. “That’s a good thing that came out of this, too.”
The two created a Facebook group titled “The Relocated Kidney....Julie and Nancy’s Journey” to document the process.
Kroupa and Drumsta traveled to Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee for the transplant.
“We have some of the best surgeons here. It’s unbelievable,” Kroupa said. “We have people who come here from around the world to get transplants.”
“Working with the medical staff was awesome,” Drumsta added. “I told my nurse he was one of the reasons I was telling my story.”
The staff had compliments for Drumsta, as well.
“It was a privilege to work with Nancy and her primary care provider, Erin Nelson and staff, to complete her diagnostic testing and lab work required in the donor evaluation,” said Jeffrey Klister, the living kidney donor coordinator who worked with Drumsta and Kroupa. “I was glad to be able to collaborate all her testing and appointments in order for her to be approved to be a donor by our physicians on the selection committee review board.”
Drumsta was in the hospital for two days, and stayed in Milwaukee an extra day and a half to make sure she was feeling comfortable before she left. She has since returned to Milwaukee for two appointments, both of which went well. She has already returned to work part time.
While Kroupa’s body accepted the kidney well, there were some complications with the surgery, which required two emergency surgeries within five days. She has recovered well and has been cleared to return home to Green Bay Tuesday. She hopes to return to work in June.
She is already noticing vast improvements.
“I’m eating food I haven’t been able to eat since October of 2014,” Kroupa said. “I’m hooked on turtle sundaes from Leon’s in Milwaukee . . . Before, I couldn’t eat nuts and ice cream. I had to watch my salt intake. I could only eat the size of a deck of cards of protein each day. I had a chocolate malt last week and I started crying because it was the first time I’d had one in so long. I texted Nancy right away.”
Her outlook on life has changed, too.
“I went from planning my funeral, not looking far ahead into the future . . . to now I’m going to return home and plan a vacation,” Kroupa said. “I’m going to go somewhere when I heal up and it’s safe to travel. I can look at my job differently. I’ll have more energy for all of it, and a more positive outlook.”
Drumsta said the decision to give her friend the gift of a new life was an easy one.
“I’d already made up my mind years ago that I would test,” Drumsta said. “For me, it wasn’t that difficult . . . Having her be a good friend makes a difference. You’d just hope if you needed a friend, they’d be there.”
She admitted the process was a little scary, but ultimately, very rewarding.
She encouraged others to consider being a donor.
“If you have nothing holding you back, I would highly recommend it,” Drumsta said. “It was very rewarding and very amazing.”
For more information about kidney donation, visit www.kidney.org/transplantation/livingdonors.