2 kidneys, 2 sisters
PEORIA -- Two kidneys and two sisters.
One donated a kidney to the other in 1985, which made medical history in Peoria.
"Of course you remember the first one better than you remember the next 999," says Dr. Beverly Ketel, the transplant surgeon who performed the area's first kidney transplant. "It's amazing how many people are still around who remember the first one."
The recipient of that first transplant was Dorothy Davis, who died last month at the age of 63, having survived almost 30 years -- and breast cancer, among other illnesses -- with a kidney donated by her sister.
In an unusual turn of events, Davis' sister, Martina Rutherford, also had a kidney transplant and could use another.
Rutherford, 59, undergoes dialysis three times a week, four hours each time, at Fresenius Medical Care, a dialysis treatment clinic along Romeo B. Garrett Avenue.
"We used to joke," Rutherford says. "I'd tell her if she wanted to, she could give me my kidney back."
About 20 years after Rutherford donated a kidney to her sister, she learned her remaining kidney was failing. It's rare for a former donor to need a transplant, says Ketel, director of transplant services at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. But it does happen and when it happens, former donors automatically move to the top of the transplant waiting list.
Because Rutherford had been a donor, she was able to get a transplant "really fast," though the typical waiting time is five years, Ketel says. But in another uncommon twist, that kidney, harvested from a deceased donor, turned out to be cancerous. The only way to get rid of the cancer was to remove the kidney. In 2008, a year after the transplant, Rutherford had surgery to remove the kidney.
"That wasn't taken lightly," she says softly. "Thankfully, they haven't found any cancer."
While her sister dealt with the potential cancerous repercussions of a failed transplant, Davis dealt with cancer and liver failure. She underwent a double mastectomy for the cancer and explored the possibility of a liver transplant, though she decided against it even before doctors told her she didn't meet the criteria.
"They were always there for each other, that's the beauty of it," says Gail Randle, Davis' longtime friend.
Davis never regretted the decision to have the kidney transplant in 1985, say family and friends. Rutherford doesn't hesitate when she says she'd do it all over again.
"I thought it was a remarkable thing that I could do," Rutherford says. "I was not ready to lose my sister, but I lost her anyway."
When Davis had her transplant in 1985, the life expectancy for a recipient of a kidney transplant from a living donor was about 15 years, Ketel says. Now it's well more than 20 years. Davis beat the odds by each measure, raising two sons, Marcus and Chris, in the process.
Family and friends say Davis, known as "Dot," was special.
She was the type who delayed a kidney transplant to coordinate another sister's wedding. Famous for her cooking, she perfected fat-free, healthy soul food recipes after she had the transplant. To her family's surprise, she already had planned her funeral services.
"We always called her a perfectionist," Rutherford says. "She'd say you just can't do things halfway and I'd say why not?"
She also was such a private woman that friends, even family, didn't always know how sick she was.
"We all knew she had more bad days than good, but she never complained," Randle says.
Many of her qualities contributed to her longevity.
When Peoria's transplant program got off the ground, Davis' doctor thought she'd be an excellent candidate for the first transplant.
"Of course, he was right," Ketel says. "She was an inspiration to all of us."