IN the prime of her life, Bianca Jooste was hit with devastating news. Her body was in acute renal failure and if she didn’t undergo a kidney transplant, she would have had to survive on kidney dialysis for the rest of her life. Her little brother Lance stepped up and donated an organ to save his sister’s life.
“I started getting sick in June 2009 while working as an administrator at Child Welfare. At the time I was 28 years old. I had nausea, vomiting and muscle pains – all symptoms of a stomach bug – but when I started losing a lot of weight and becoming disorientated and confused my parent knew there was something far more seriously wrong with me,” says Lauren. “I was immediately rushed to hospital where a kidney biopsy, blood and urine tests, scans and ultrasounds were done. I was diagnosed with renal failure. It was incomprehensible to me. I had always been fit and healthy and now I was critically ill. By the time I was diagnosed the damage was so far gone that I would ultimately need a kidney transplant if I was to ever lead a normal life again.”
While in hospital Bianca suffered another shattering blow – a stroke that affected her memory, her speech and her mobility. “The doctors told me that there was bleeding on my brain. I suffered something called a ‘haemorrhagic stroke’ – a brain aneurism burst. Blood spills into and around my brain and created swelling and pressure, damaging cells and tissue in the brain, which affected my speech and short-term memory, as well as my right hand. I had to go for physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy,” she says. “The nurses had to teach me how to walk again. The stroke affected my vocabulary and I could only say certain words, the most familiar words at the time were ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’. I had to get used to family members finishing my sentences for me or when I used the opposite words. For example I would say ‘inside’ but mean ‘outside’. I persevered and stayed positive and slowly taught myself with the help of my therapists and family members to get to a stage where I realised when I am using the wrong word and correcting myself. My right eye was squint and my right hand became lazy.”
The challenges Bianca now faced, in addition to dialysis for her kidney condition, left a once bubbly and energetic young lady withdrawn and depressed. “Emotionally I was very down; it felt like I was another person. I had to make a choice to accept this new person and this new body and be kind to myself. I did this by thinking positive thoughts and kept my personality and often use my laughter and jokes as a defence mechanism. I was especially scared on the dialysis machines and used to get very nervous every time I had treatment but I learnt it’s mind over matter and became used to them.”
Bianca was on dialysis for three years – three sessions a week, each of which lasted three hours – before finally undergoing a kidney transplant in July 2012. Her donor? Bianca’s younger brother, Lance. At the time Lance had just turned 25, which is the recommended age to donate a kidney. He was in his final year of studies at the University of Johannesburg. Months of interviews and tests followed to make sure Lance was physically and psychologically fit to go through with the procedure. He was made aware that, while it was perfectly possible to live with one kidney, it was crucial that the organ stayed healthy. That meant changing his lifestyle and ensuring his body was in peak condition.
“Lance and I have always been very close and shared a special bond – now we share something more!”, says Bianca. “When we were told that I needed a transplant or I wouldn’t make it everyone rallied around me in support. My parents Bruce and Leticia offered to be donors but they both suffer from high blood pressure and were not suitable candidates. For them it was difficult knowing they couldn’t help me. When they tested my brother and he was a good match, he immediately said he’d do it even though he knew it would involve a major operation that is not risk free. We were admitted to hospital the night before the transplant and both very nervous but the operations went well.”
Lance’s kidney was removed through keyhole surgery and quickly taken to the operating theatre, where Bianca was waiting to be anaesthetised. An incision was made in Bianca’s lower abdomen and the donated kidney was put into place. Her own kidneys were where left were they were. Nearby blood vessels were attached to the blood vessels of the donated kidney to provide the donated kidney with the blood supply it needs to function properly. Finally, the ureter (the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder) of the donated kidney was connected to Bianca’s bladder. Both operations lasted about three hours.
“Like all transplant patients there is always a risk your body will reject the organ,” says Bianca. “I had to take strong immunosuppressant drugs to help prevent my body rejecting Lance’s kidney. We were in ICU for a few days and he was discharged from hospital much earlier than me. It was Lance’s first hospitalisation ever so he had some discomfort the first few days. Although there were no serious complications, the surgery is more traumatic for the donor, who loses, rather than gains, a perfectly healthy organ. It was a big sacrifice for him and I’m very proud of him. We were both on a six week recovery phase. I was not allowed visitors for six weeks and I was wearing a mask at home to protect me from any germs as my immune system was very weak. The recovery process went so smoothly because of our faith, a positive attitude towards the process and the support of all our family and friends and prayer groups.”
Bianca is now 32 years old and in good health. Her body accepted the organ and she was fortunate not to develop an infection but there are concerns about her ability to carry her own children one day. “My experience taught me that life is too short not to live it in the moment. I was always a big dreamer with great plans for the future and a bucket list of things to achieve such as travelling to see the world. Now that I’ve got a second chance I plan on fulfilling my bucket list! My advice to other young people who need a kidney transplant is not to give up hope and to allow yourself time to have good days and bad days. Some days you will experience a great day, the next day you will feel that you just want to be left alone. Always know that you have the support of family, friends, medical staff that have so much passion for what they do that they become part of your support group. Laughter is always the best medicine, facing challenges will always be part of your life, it is how you overcome them and getting to where you want to be is the biggest reward.”