Brothers Bound by Blood and a Single Kidney: “Kaisers Never Quit”

July 31, 2019

Like most brothers, Greg and Mark Kaiser were competitive.

“They both loved sports and were always at it. They had their good moments and bad moments but they never got angry. Whatever game they were playing they turned into a competition,” said Loretta Kaiser. She and her husband Vernon raised three boys - Scott, the youngest, Mark, the middle son, and Greg, the oldest – in rural Crown Point.

As youngsters the boys often played pick up games of basketball. Later when their dad added a sand volleyball pit, the boys invited friends over for friendly competitions.

“We had a lot of acreage in the backyard so there was always a whiffle ball or baseball game going on and the boys loved exploring the woods,” said Loretta Kaiser. The two older brothers also had something else in common – they both suffered from asthma and allergies. “It’s like they both knew what they could and couldn’t eat. I didn’t work because I was taking them to their doctor appointments,” said Loretta Kaiser. “They were in the ER plenty of times.”

Other than that, the boys were relatively healthy. They remember having a few sports injuries - Mark broke his wrist and ankle; Greg received a severe cut at recess in the fourth grade. They played on the same Little League teams and in high school Mark pursued wrestling and football and Greg pursued basketball.

“Greg made it his goal to make the varsity basketball team his freshman year of high school. He practiced morning, noon and night,” said Loretta Kaiser.

***

This summer, Greg Kaiser, 42, put his athleticism toward a cause. He participated in both the National Kidney Foundation Walk and Charity Basketball Game. Mark Kaiser joined him on the walk through White River State Park – raising awareness of kidney disease. It was the second year they walked together. This year’s walk was a little different for the brothers who once competed on the courts and fields.

This year they celebrated a connection. On September 27, 2018, Mark, 40 donated his kidney to his older brother. The transplant was a culmination of months of illness for Greg, who is married to Kristen Kaiser and the father of three boys.

“The day of Christmas 2017 I wasn’t feeling good and the day after I went to a minute clinic and was sent to ER,” said Greg. His right lung was filled with fluid. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and further tests showed renal failure. He was immediately put on dialysis and eventually went through emergency surgery to drain his lungs. He spent 24 days in the hospital. As soon as Greg was released from the hospital Mark began the testing process to become a kidney donor for his brother.

“I don’t think I hesitated for a minute after he spent so many days in the hospital and knowing he’d be on the donor list for some time, I knew what I had to do,” said Mark, who is married to Jen Kaiser.

Over the years the brothers’ relationship grew from one of competitiveness to collaboration. Greg attended Purdue University and pursued a degree in building construction management. Mark went to Valparaiso University and works in civil engineering. For a time after college they lived together in Memphis. As adults they live within a mile of each other, join each other for morning workouts, vacations, and home projects.

So on the day of surgery, the brothers requested to have their rooms side by side.

“Mark went in an hour and half before me and our prep rooms were across from each other but after surgery, they put us at opposite ends of the hall. We look so much alike they didn’t want to get us confused,” said Greg.

***

It was a challenging time for his family.

Greg Kaiser’s wife was entering her third trimester of pregnancy with their third child when Greg was diagnosed with kidney disease. Like other things in their lives, she said the birth was scheduled to accommodate Greg’s health needs. Greg had surgery to insert the catheter to begin home dialysis and was still going to hemodialysis three days a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. His wife was induced on a Sunday so Greg could feel well enough to spend time with his wife and newborn before going back to the dialysis center.

“When I think about that period of time, I really feel like we coped because we divided the responsibilities,” said Kristen Kaiser. “I was largely responsible for caring for our children and managing their well-being. He was responsible for managing his health, taking his medication and going to appointments. We both relied heavily on the support of family, friends, and co-workers.”

The news that Mark Kaiser was a match for his brother meant many things for the family. Greg could eat normal foods, spend less time at doctor’s appointments, and there would be an end to his nightly dialysis.

“I said Greg was like Cinderella. Normal during the day, a kidney patient from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” said Kristin Kaiser. It was a predictable routine.

“To put my faith in surgeons and to risk something going wrong was scary,” said Kristin Kaiser. “My feelings were further complicated because a family member I love was donating an organ. So I had two people to worry about.”

It didn’t take long for the family to trust Greg’s surgeon, Dr. William Goggins.

“We quickly built a rapport with the transplant team and we read in advance all about Dr. Goggins, the LeBron James of kidney transplants,” said Kristin Kaiser. IU Health performs about 200 kidney transplants a year. Last year, Dr. Goggins performed his 2000th kidney transplant.

Kristin Kaiser said her worries were put to rest the evening after the transplant. A nurse asked Greg if he could stand to be weighed. He immediately said he wanted to walk the hall to see his brother.



“We told him it was too far but he could go the next day. He stood and started walking toward Mark’s room. I will never forget the look on Mark’s face when Greg walked in,” said Kristin Kaiser. “When I think about all that we’ve gained it is with the knowledge that so much of it has to do with Greg’s strength and determination to get healthy. He was a good patient. I don’t remember him complaining or throwing any pity parties for himself. He faced every challenge with the attitude that Kaisers never quit.”

--By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health. Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

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