Nathan Saavedra is only 3 years old and has already had enough medical problems to last a lifetime. But family and friends hope a second kidney transplant, scheduled for today, marks the beginning of the end of his suffering.
The Carpentersville boy is scheduled to receive a kidney from a man he's never met, a move that could give him another shot at life without doctors' constant puncturing, poking and prodding.
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"It would mean the world for me for this operation to be successful, just because it'll give Nathan a better chance," said his mother, Tina Saavedra, 28. "It won't be dialysis every night for him. He won't have lines in his stomach that I'm afraid he's going to pull out or get an infection on."
Nathan suffers from prune-belly syndrome, a birth defect that affects the muscles in his urinary tract, resulting in a blockage of urine that leads to kidney damage.
Nathan has been in and out of hospitals his entire life and the disease, which leaves him with a larger belly, meant he took longer to sit, can't eat solid food, and wasn't walking until two weeks before his latest birthday. In October 2010, Nathan had a second chance at a normal life after he received a kidney from Chris Doing of Carpentersville, another donor he'd never met.
While that kidney was a perfect match medically, for Nathan's system, it still didn't take to his body and had to be removed five months later.
The kidney he's about to get isn't a perfect match, a fact that leaves Nathan's mother on edge.
"It's hard," Tina Saavedra said. "I try to stay positive, I really do, but it's all the what-ifs."
Kalin Koychev, 33, of Wheeling, read about Nathan's necessity for another kidney in the Daily Herald late last year and was among 50 people who volunteered to get tested as a possible donor.
Koychev, a married father with two sons -- one the same age as Nathan -- gives God credit for making his donation possible since there was about a 2 percent chance of finding a suitable donor for Nathan.
"It's about God taking me here," Koychev said. "I'm just a person God uses to show his mercy."
Though he's never had surgery before -- not even to have his wisdom teeth removed -- Koychev isn't worried about his safety on transplant day. The Bulgarian native is relaxed because he's convinced God will be there with him to keep him safe in the operating room.
"Everything's just perfect, (there's) no going back," Koychev said, less than 48 hours before his operation. "It's the Lord's will, not mine, so I am absolutely confident with what will happen."
Koychev's surgery takes place at around 10 a.m. at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, next door to Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, where Nathan is staying. Nathan's surgery begins after doctors have tested Koychev's kidney.
All Koychev had to do in preparation for his two-hour operation was fast for 12 hours and shower thoroughly before bed. He's expected to be released Friday and should be completely healed within two months.
Nathan, on the other hand, was admitted to Lurie on Saturday to have surgery so he could undergo two treatments to lower two antibodies in his blood that could reject Koychev's kidney.
"Nathan has a very active immune system, so he formed antibodies against things in a lot of people in the general population, so it was actually very challenging to find an acceptable kidney donor for him the second time around," said Dr. Amy Bobrowski, Nathan's pediatric nephrologist at Lurie. "There's still a chance his immune system could rev up again and reject this kidney at a higher risk than with his first transplant, so we'll have to monitor things very closely and treat any changes as we see them."
Nathan has had monthly treatments to lower his antibody levels and they worked well enough to the point that he needed only two more before his surgery. He'll have at least one more after the surgery, Bobrowski said.
Once Nathan's operation is over, doctors will continue to watch his progress daily at first, then weekly and monthly.
"In this situation, there's not a defined time when you're out of the woods. He's going to be monitored at least somewhat closely for the rest of his life in this situation," Bobrowski said.
Tina Saavedra has remained by her son's side since he's been at the hospital and even sleeps with him in his hospital bed.
While she admits it isn't easy to see Nathan hooked up to machines and struggling while he receives medication, her little boy has also fueled her own courage and given her hope.
"Watching Nathan be able to fight through it, I know I need to fight through it for him to give him a chance and so he can start feeling better," she said. "I try to think that it's all happening for a reason and if Nathan can fight, so can I."