Sister’s gift gives second chance at life
26 January 2008, 12:18
Last year when Rebecca van Nelson’s eyesight started getting blurry she thought she might need glasses and went to see an optometrist.
But the problem turned out to be not with her eyes but her kidneys, which were undersized and failing.
In a split second the young, vibrant 19-year-old went from having her whole life in front of her to having a death sentence hanging over her head.
She was given the chilling news that only a kidney transplant would save her.
The diagnosis shocked her close-knit family from Grassy Park, Cape Town, especially because Rebecca had hardly been sick a day in her life and renal failure didn’t run in the family.
She had to have dialysis for four hours twice a week until a donor could be found which she was told could take years, unless a relative was prepared to donate a kidney.
A number of family members, including her mother, Veronica, immediately went to be tested for compatibility but it was her sister, 27-year-old Stacey van Nelson, who was the perfect match.
As soon as Stacey heard the news, she made up her mind to donate her kidney to her younger sister and says she had no regrets.
"I hated to see Rebecca suffer, it was so sad," she said.
The operations were done by a transplant team at Groote Schuur on December 5 and were a huge success.
"Everyone told me it was a great Christmas gift to give but I just gave it to her with love," Stacey said.
She was discharged after a week while Rebecca returned home the day before Christmas.
She amazed the whole family by tucking into a huge festive lunch, after barely being able to eat for months.
Rebecca said it took just a few days after the transplant to start feeling herself again.
"I was just so happy to get a kidney, although I was worried about my sister," she said.
Stacey said the transplant had brought them closer.
"Although now it’s almost back to normal and we are already having our sister fights!"
She said Rebecca had picked up a bit of weight since the operation.
"I tease her that I gave her my fat kidney."
Estelle Neethling, a colleague of Stacey’s at the SA Red Cross Society, said the transplant had inspired their entire office.
"When I first heard what Stacey was doing, I suddenly asked myself if it was something I could do. And I couldn’t answer straight away."
She said Stacey giving the "gift of life" had moved them all.
"When Stacey came back to work she seemed to have a soft light in her eyes.
"You could almost see something different about her, something spiritual."
Stacey says her goal this year is to get back in shape to resume playing touch rugby and to raise money for the renal unit at Groote Schuur, which was very under-resourced.
Heather Engelbrecht, the transplant co-ordinator at Groote Schuur, said there was a severe shortage of organs.
Kidneys either came from family members, called "live-related donors", or cadaver donors, who are patients that have been declared brain dead.
Engelbrecht said they en-couraged people to talk to their families about whether they were prepared to donate their organs.
"So it is not something the family has to debate afterwards."
She said people could live happily with one kidney.
"If it did compromise your lifestyle, then we wouldn’t do it," she said.
* This article was originally published on page 12 of The Cape Argus on January 26, 2008