BY SANDY LUNDAHL — There are many stories about educators who change students’ lives. But sometimes, it’s a student — or their family — who changes the life of an educator.
Kristal Weems-Bradner was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease in her late 20s, a genetic disorder that runs in her family and can result in kidney failure. Now 48, Weems-Bradner has been on daily, peritoneal dialysis for more than two years. Weems-Bradner is the Interim Co-Head and Middle Division Principal at the Chelsea School in Hyattsville.
“My mother, some of my aunts and many of my cousins, including male cousins, all have the disease,” Weems-Bradner said. She says her mother received a kidney from a deceased donor that lasted for 6-7 years and then she returned to dialysis for the remainder of her life. Her mother died in January 2016.
“I knew what to expect,” said Weems-Bradner.
Polycystic kidney disease (also called PKD) causes numerous cysts to grow in the kidneys. These cysts are filled with fluid. If too many cysts grow or if they get too big, the kidneys can become damaged. PKD cysts can slowly replace much of the kidneys, reducing kidney function and leading to kidney failure, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Weems-Bradner was on the transplant list, on dialysis and waiting for a deceased donor while friends and relatives were tested to see if any of them were a match. Her son, the best match, was disqualified when they learned he also has the gene for polycystic kidney disease.
Many people who need organ and tissue transplants cannot get them because of a shortage of donations, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Of the 123,000 Americans currently on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant, more than 101,000 need a kidney, but only 17,000 people receive one each year. Every day 12 people die waiting for a kidney.
Two years ago, Weems-Bradner spoke to a biology class at Chelsea School about how kidneys function and different ways they stop working. After the class, Alexander (Alec) Casey offered her something precious: Alec offered to donate one of his kidneys. Unfortunately, donors must be at least 18 years old.
Fast forward two years.
“I’m 18 now,” said Alec, who recently graduated from Chelsea School. “Do you still need that ‘thing’?” he asked Weems-Bradner. “I want to give you my kidney,” Alec says he told Weems-Bradner the day after his 18th birthday. “She told me that I had to talk with my parents.”
With his parents’ approval, Alec went through the questionnaire process, but stopped when he learned — incorrectly — that people with tattoos could not donate. Rather, prospective donors are advised not to get a tattoo before donating because of the risk of infection.
That’s when Alec’s father, Chris Casey, 66, stepped in and went through the same extensive process and found out that he was a perfect match for Weems-Bradner.
Chris wanted to give back to a school and school official who had given so much for his son.
“It’s because of my affection for Weems-Bradner and the [Chelsea] school,” said Chris. “My son had been in public school and was not receiving the academic support he needed. Within 18 months of attending [Chelsea] he made substantial progress despite his dyslexia and ADHD. He received the highest score in the ACT reading test and was declared ‘college-ready.’”
Chelsea School is a small college-preparatory school for students with learning disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder. Chelsea School serves students in grades 5 through 12.
“We try to build strong relationships with our students and family,” Weems-Bradner said. Each teacher becomes an advisor to two or three students, she explained, and stays in contact weekly with the family initially and then at least monthly to inform parents of their child’s progress and to find out about potential problems as early as possible.
“She [Weems-Bradner] changed my thinking about school and life,” Alec said. “When I first came to [Chelsea], my main purpose was definitely not school. I was fighting a lot. She gave me lots of advice and we had a really good connection. I would call her more than my advisor whenever I needed help.”
Weems-Bradner says she is “blown away” when she thinks about Chris’s donation of his kidney to her. She described her feelings in a Facebook post on June 30, 10 days after surgery:
I am an African American woman and I need to thank a white man for saving my life. In this day and age of such turmoil, especially between the races, … What are the chances of this man being a direct match when I had been waiting on the transplant list for 2 years without any potential matches (living or cadaver). On June 20th, Chris donated a kidney to me. This is one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given to me. I am eternally grateful to [the Casey] family, for they are truly a blessing to me. … We are surrounded by hate, distrust and malice [and yet] there is truly good in the world, and there is truly hope!
Donation is not risk-free; it carries the same risk profile as having an appendix removed, says Give a Kidney, a charitable organization that promotes altruistic or non-directed living kidney donation. But it’s important to know that it is generally considered very safe to live with one kidney. Most people with one kidney live healthy, normal lives with few problems, says the National Kidney Foundation. In other words, one healthy kidney can work as well as two.
Why did Chris go through with it?
“How many times do you really have an opportunity to give back?” asked Chris. “We, and especially Alec, developed a strong relationship with Weems-Bradner. She deserved it. We are so happy she received the kidney well and that it is working. She’s got the big challenge.”
Transplant patients who receive a kidney from a living donor spend less time on a wait list and report better outcomes, says George Washington University’s Transplant Institute, where the transplant surgeries took place. Better outcomes include: a quicker recovery time, less likelihood of rejection, and lower risk for side effects. Kidneys from live donors work longer compared to deceased donor transplants.
For Weems-Bradner, it’s a minimum of eight weeks recovery with a round-the-clock caregiver on hand, multiple trips to the clinic for lab work, and constant fine tuning of a fistful of anti-rejection medications that she will have to take for the rest of her life.
Chris said he worked hard to be as physically fit as possible for his surgery. Afterwards his energy and soreness improved each day. About three weeks after surgery, Chris had gone back to work and was on his way to an assignment in Uganda for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Alec will be attending West Virginia Wesleyan’s nursing program and plans to combine nursing and travel by working in different hospitals around the world. “I want to help others and travel,” Alec said.
He said he wants people to remember the golden rule, to treat others how you would like to be treated and that it is important to think about how what you do affects others. “Always keep that in mind,” he said.
“My dad is a great man. He cares for people and wants to give back,” Alec said.