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Wendy Reiss Finds Her Perfect Kidney Match – Her Husband

After rare kidney disease leaves Wendy Reiss needing a new kidney, her husband, Barry, offers her one of his

Thirty-eight years ago, Wendy Reiss and her husband, Barry Reiss, stood in front of the people they love the most and made a promise to each other – to be there for one another through it all. A year ago, their promise of “in sickness and in health” took on a whole new meaning.

It started in 2005, when Wendy recognized something wasn’t right with her health. She was drinking water as if her body couldn’t get enough of it. She also needed to urinate constantly. It reached the point where proximity and access to a bathroom dictated her life. Avid travelers, Wendy and Barry went from being frequent flyers, with 19 trips to Hawaii in the books, to traveling less and keeping their trips closer to home. Then her profession was affected: Wendy had to walk away from her 32-year career as an operating room registered nurse (RN) at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest.

She was experiencing other symptoms, too, such as pure exhaustion. At night, Wendy would often fall asleep an hour after eating dinner because of her kidneys’ inability to properly process the meal. Wendy knew it was time to do something about her health and she turned to Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) for help.

Thirsty for answers

In 2005, Wendy was seen by a nephrologist who diagnosed her with nephrogenic diabetes insipidus (NDI), a rare kidney disorder where the kidney produces too much urine, causing rapid, sometimes dangerous dehydration. “I would drink 3.5 liters a day and I would urinate 6.5 liters, more than half throughout the night. I was constantly dehydrated, and I always had to have something with me to drink,” Wendy says.

She began a strict renal (kidney) diet, which involved avoiding beef and sodium and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. But it wasn’t helping.

“They predicted I would need a kidney transplant in 2024, but my kidneys failed so fast,” Wendy says. Wendy’s kidney function went down to 16%. At 15%, she would most likely need to start dialysis. Right on the border of needing dialysis, Wendy applied to the transplant program at LVHN.

The transplant journey begins

After applying to LVHN’s transplant program in November 2022, Wendy underwent three months of testing to determine her transplant eligibility. On Feb. 2, 2023, Wendy found out she was a candidate for transplant.

She turned to transplant surgeon George Rofaiel, MD, Chief of Transplant Surgery at Lehigh Valley Institute for Surgical Excellence, for help.

“At my first appointment with Dr. Rofaiel, he told me I was going to feel like a new person after transplant surgery – and he was 100% right.” - Wendy Reiss

“One in 25,000 people are diagnosed with nephrogenic diabetes insipidus, but only 1% of these patients need a kidney transplant,” Dr. Rofaiel says. “Unfortunately, Wendy was within this 1%.”

Wendy needed two things: both of her kidneys removed and a new kidney. Wendy then had to make a choice: a cadaver kidney or one from a living donor. “Living donation provides the most reliable and robust way for getting a patient a transplant, while also offering a faster recovery for patients,” Dr. Rofaiel says. Kidneys from a living donor last twice as long as well.

“Living donation saves people from enduring years and years of dialysis,” Dr. Rofaiel says. “Dialysis ranks among the worst when it comes to a patient’s life expectancy. The way to avoid dialysis is to have a preemptive kidney transplant. We are trying to provide more patients with transplants before they start dialysis.”

Wendy chose living donation. First to volunteer as her living donor was Barry.

Barry went through living-donor testing to see if he was a match. He was approved to be a living donor in May 2023, and in June 2023 they found out Barry was compatible with Wendy.

Rapid transition to transplant surgery

Things moved quickly. On July 26, 2023, Dr. Rofaiel performed this complex surgery – which involved removing both of Wendy’s kidneys and then transplanting one of Barry’s kidneys to Wendy – using robotic-assisted technology.

Because Wendy is among the first people with NDI to have both kidneys removed at the same time as a new kidney was transplanted, there was no handbook for Dr. Rofaiel to follow. However, the Reisses believed in Dr. Rofaiel and trusted his robotic surgery capabilities. The surgery was a success and Wendy received a new kidney that started working immediately.

“For Wendy to have these surgeries done at the same time, years ago would have been a major surgery with a super-long recovery,” Dr. Rofaiel says. “Previously, you would have needed an 8-inch incision and a rib removed. But with robotic-assisted transplant surgery, no ribs need to be removed and both Wendy and Barry only required 3-inch incisions.”

The Reisses also were ready to head home in almost no time with Barry going home on July 27, just one day after surgery. And Wendy headed home on July 28, just two days after surgery. “Robotic surgery is providing patients with faster and easier recovery. With traditional surgery, both Wendy and Barry would have remained in the hospital for 5-to-7 days,” Dr. Rofaiel says.

Healing at home

Wendy and Barry required attentive care while recovering at home. Their daughter and son-in-law were happy to lend a helping hand. “The surgery couldn’t have gone better and our recovery was just amazing,” Wendy says.

Barry went back to work six weeks after surgery. And 12 weeks after her surgery, Wendy returned to work as an RN in the gastrointestinal lab.

“We surgically cured Wendy’s disease,” Dr. Rofaiel says. “And she is recovering incredibly.”

Drinking up all life has to offer

Wendy’s lifestyle is a lot different now.

“At my first appointment with Dr. Rofaiel, he told me I was going to feel like a new person after transplant surgery – and he was 100% right,” Wendy says. “I went from not being able to get enough fluids to now having to remind myself to drink water.”

In January 2024, Wendy was ecstatic to return to her 39-year career at LVHN and rejoin the operating room team as the operating room staff scheduler. The Reisses also can make travel plans again. In April, Wendy and Barry will be traveling to Hawaii for the 20th time.

“Before this transplant, I didn’t think I had much life left and I wouldn’t enjoy retirement with my husband. But now, I have all these years left and the quality of life I never had,” Wendy says. “And this whole new life is thanks to the generosity of the love of my life. Who would have known 38 years ago, Barry would not only become my husband; he would be my kidney donor, too.”

According to Barry, it wasn’t generosity. It was love. “I don’t know who wouldn’t want to do this for their spouse,” Barry says. “I would do anything to help my wife.”

LVHN Kidney Transplant Program at 30

Kidney transplants

With more than 30 years of transplant experience, LVHN’s kidney transplants have a 94% success rate and LVHN patients receive kidneys faster than at other transplant programs.

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