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Retired insurance agent gets kidney transplant

Robert Wilkerson sits with his wife, Sara, in their home just one week after he received a kidney transplant.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN

[12/24/01]Robert Wilkerson received his Christmas surprise a little early this year.

Wilkerson, 62, had been waiting on a kidney transplant for years, having been diagnosed with kidney disease in 1993 and on dialysis since 1999.

Then his number came up.

Around 9:30 on the morning of Dec. 10, he received a call during a dialysis treatment to tell him a kidney might be available. He was told to stay by the phone all day in case it was a perfect match. At 2 p.m., that call came. “Those were the two most exciting phone calls in my life,” Wilkerson said. That evening, he was at University Medical Center in Jackson being prepped for surgery.

A week later, at his home in Vicksburg, Wilkerson said, “My Christmas present came early.”

“The funny part of the whole story is that my wife casually asked me the other day, What do you want for Christmas?’ I kiddingly said, a kidney,'” he said. “If I knew she had that much pull with Santa Claus, I would’ve asked earlier.”

Unlike most patients, Wilkerson did not suffer from diabetes or high blood pressure, the two most common causes of kidney failure. His kidney stopped filtering bodily wastes for unknown reasons. “Like a lightning strike,” he said. “An unspecified cause.”

The problem was diagnosed eight years ago, during a regular physical exam. His kidneys then deteriorated so much that he had to begin dialysis in September 1999.

Three times a week, four hours a day, Wilkerson was connected to a machine through an artificial set of veins and arteries grafted onto his arm. The hemo-dialysis machine kept him alive, acting as an artificial kidney to filter the wastes from his blood.

“When you have to go sit down three times a week for four hours, it’s a change in lifestyle,” he said. The dialysis treatment, and ensuing anemia, was too much to bear while running his family insurance business, R.C. Wilkerson. He said when he fully understood what he would be going through, he arranged to sell the business and officially retired July 1. “I knew what was coming, so I got out,” he said.

But he didn’t give up hope of finding a new kidney.

He was put on the waiting lists at UMC and a medical center in Alabama for a cadaveric transplant, one that comes from an organ donor rather than a relative, or living transplant.

Donors and recipients are matched on a point system, depending on blood type, tissue and other factors. Wilkerson’s perfect match came through UMC, the only organ transplant center in the state.

“It’s a hidden pearl over there, really,” Wilkerson said, of the center. “The transplant surgeon and transplant nephrologist are world renown, and they’re sitting over there in Jackson and not at Johns Hopkins,” he said.

On Dec. 11, Wilkerson underwent a four-hour operation to implant the donated kidney, leaving him with a 20-inch scar across his lower abdomen and up his side. His old kidneys remain, which will atrophy with time. “They don’t hurt anything staying there, and they just create problems taking them out,” he said. “I came out with three kidneys instead of two.”

A week after surgery, Wilkerson was back at home in Vicksburg, preparing for the holidays.

“He bounced back from this operation much quicker than usual for someone his age,” said Henry Barber, surgical director for renal transplants at University Medical Center, which performs about 50 kidney transplants a year. The family had expected to be in the hospital for 14 days. “I didn’t expect to get home until Christmas Eve,” Wilkerson said.

Instead, he is already getting around, although he must take about 50 pills a day to help his body accept the new organ. “They are anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-this and anti-that,” he said. Rejection is still a concern, although success rates have climbed steadily in recent years.

Having gone through the ordeal, both he and his wife are organ donors and encourage others to sign up.

“In the trade, (organ donations) are called the gift of life. It’s truly that,” he said. “Kidney failure won’t kill you, because of dialysis, but hearts, lungs they really are classed as gifts of life.”

He opted not to find out about the person who donated his gift, instead, graciously accepting his Christmas gift.

“We’ve had our Christmas,” said Sara Wilkerson, his wife of 40 years. “It’s a wonderful gift for me, too.”

“So when you’re opening your presents Christmas morning, you can think, I’ve already gotten mine,” Wilkerson said, smiling from ear to ear.