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Medical crisis shows family's mettle, love.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

MARCOLA - She told him last December at halftime of a Mohawk High basketball game. It was one of those moments in which the frivolity of life (`We've got spirit, yes we do!') was suddenly interrupted by the tragically profound (`I need a kidney transplant').

Natalie Whisenant, a Head Start of Lane County teacher, had been diagnosed with kidney problems a year before. Now, her kidneys had gone from 60 percent to 24 percent of normal function.

People can survive after losing one of their two kidneys. But, without dialysis, they can't survive if both go bad, which was the case with the 37-year-old mother of four.

Later that night, Natalie's 10-year-old daughter, Taylor, overheard her and husband Jay talking. "Mom," she said, her eyes wet, "you can have one of mine."

Kidney donors must be at least 18. Jay, 38, volunteered to be tested to see if he would be a good match. After all, he had the same A Positive blood, which is a start.

"I'd give both of my kidneys for her," says Jay, a warehouse worker at Mount Hood Beverage in Springfield. "I love her to death."

Natalie was apprehensive. "I had mixed feelings. That's a lot to give up, but I was glad he was a good match."

After extensive testing at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, doctors scheduled the transplant procedure for last August.

Since 1959, OHSU has done 3,400 such procedures; 93 percent have been successful a year later, says spokeswoman Christine Pashley.

While the Whisenant kids - besides Taylor there's Jaymes, 17, Aaron, 15, and Jeff, 13 - waited, Jay's right kidney was removed in the morning and placed on ice. Two hours later, it was placed inside Natalie.

All went well. The kidney "took." The two shared a room for six days, recovering. But then came the news: The kidney had, in essence, died.

"We were basket cases," Natalie says.

After much contemplation, Jay proposed a possible solution. He would give Natalie his other kidney; after all, Natalie's body hadn't rejected the kidney, it had failed because of a blood clot.

He understood the consequences.

"I just feel my kids need their mother more than they need me," he says.

"I wouldn't let him do that," Natalie says.

And so now her name goes on a waiting list - 18 months is the average wait - for another donor. Because of better medicines, which reduce the chance of a donated kidney being rejected, the pool of possibilities is wider. "The matches don't have to be perfect anymore," Pashley says.

Still, a wait guarantees nothing. Meanwhile, Natalie begins dialysis soon.

"Every time I take off my shirt, I'm reminded of my failure," says Jay, referring to his 12-inch scar.

"It's also a reminder that you tried to help me," Natalie tells him.

Others have stepped up, too, much of the help triggered by Mohawk High Principal Don Jackson. "If there is a silver lining, it's been the community," Jay says. "There aren't enough words in your column for us to say thank you."

Meals. Pizza fund-raisers (the family has insurance, but Jay only recently returned to work after a two-month absence). Understanding bosses. And the latest gesture: an offer by Wayne's Garage owner Karl Mundt, a Marcola resident, to donate 3 percent of his November invoice totals to the family.

"I've never even met this family," says Mundt, whose shop is at 27 E. 27th, "but Don told me about them and one thing led to another. They sound like good folks."

They are.

For information on the Oregon Donor Program, call (800) 452-1369, Ext. 47888. For information about donating a kidney to Natalie Whisenant, call OHSU's kidney transplant office at (800) 452-1369, Ext. 42246. To donate money to the Whisenant's cause, contact any Selco Credit Union.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 30, 2003
Words:637
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