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Mystic doctor grateful for kidney transplant

Mystic — When Dr. Daniella Duke received a phone call late in the evening in May from a number she didn't know, she initially thought it was a spam call.

But she found out it was actually a call she had hoped for: a transplant center telling her that a kidney was potentially available for her.

Duke packed her bags, got in the car, and by 6:00 the next morning, she was in surgery for a kidney transplant.

The experience was a whirlwind of emotions for Duke, who had been looking for a kidney donation for the past several years and closed her dermatology practice two years ago. She said she feels overwhelmingly grateful to have been given another chance at life.

"I'm enjoying the feeling of not having this huge weight to carry that I don't know what’s going to happen," Duke said. "I feel like I have hope that I have a future, that I can do the things I want to do."

That includes going for walks, visiting her children, who are 25-year-old twins, and learning how to play golf with her husband.

Kidney transplant

Duke, 57, who was diagnosed with kidney disease as a child, received her first kidney transplant 21 years ago when her kidneys had gone into complete failure. The transplant was a living donation from her sister.

Duke, who was 36 at the time, said her life was just beginning: she had just graduated, opened her practice, gotten married and had 4-year-old twins, and the family was building their house.  

The transplant went well, and Duke said she was fortunate to have been able to continue her life and have a kidney that lasted all these years.

Then three years ago, Duke, who is on immunosuppression therapy to prevent the body's rejection of the transplant, had a blood infection, which hurt the transplanted kidney, she said. Over the last few years, her kidney function deteriorated.

She said she knew she was heading either toward dialysis or another transplant, so she closed her dermatology practice two years ago.

She began looking for a living donor, and though two people stepped up to help, an issue popped up during both of their medical evaluations and they were unable to donate, she said.

Though a private person, Duke began to tell her story on social media in the hope of finding a living donor. She said she was overwhelmed by the support she received, and it made her realize that people really do want to help.

She had just begun telling her story when she got the call that a kidney was potentially available to her from a deceased donor.

Duke said she had been listed on the national registry for deceased donor organ matching since January but was not expecting a transplant from a deceased donor because she knew the average wait time was five to seven years.

The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which is in charge of the list, has a system to match organ donors with potential recipients, to according to its website.

Duke said "it was crazy luck" that she received the kidney transplant. The kidney donor had blood type AB, which is the same as Duke's but rare so it cuts down on the possible number of recipients. The kidney also became available over the weekend, when some transplant centers don't staff surgeries. The organs were flown on a charter flight from the Midwest because Yale-New Haven Hospital was able to staff two full surgery teams at 6 the next morning.

When her family and friends heard she received the transplant, they burst out crying.

Duke said she realizes she is "one of the lucky ones," and she now plans to raise awareness about organ donation from both living and deceased donors and how transplants save lives.

According to statistics from Donate Life America, 80% of the people on the national organ transplant list are waiting for a kidney transplant, and 12% of the people are waiting for a liver transplant.

About 8,000 people die each year waiting on the list — or about 22 people a day, according to the organization.

Duke said a kidney transplant isn't a cure for kidney failure, but it can improve the quality and length of a person's life with end-stage kidney disease.

She hopes to volunteer with New England Donor Services, an organ procurement organization, which also raises awareness about organ donations and how people can sign up to be a donor.

"I think someone like me who’s had two transplants can help people understand how important it is to just consider it," she said.

She said people can register to be an organ donor upon death, when they renew their driver's license. They can also register and learn more information by visiting Donatelife.net, or Registerme.org.

Feeling grateful

Duke, who began working with glass during the pandemic, is enjoying creating stained glass and mosaic art.

In the back of her mind, she said, she always thinks that if she gets healthy enough she might go back to work part-time working for someone else, or it's always a possibility to open her dermatology practice again, but her focus is on giving herself the time she needs to heal.

Duke recently went for a walk with a friend who remarked that Duke was walking much faster than before the transplant. Though still healing, Duke said she can do a little bit more movement every day and her new kidney is getting better and better.

After being on a very restrictive diet, she can now eat the food she likes again and drink as much fluids as she wants. She is looking forward to doing more and more activities she enjoys, from exploring the water on a small inflatable boat to playing tennis.

"I'm feeling just very grateful and happy and hopeful," she said. "I'm in a really good place and feeling stronger and stronger every day."

k.drelich@theday.com

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