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Two lifetime friends make pandemic history with kidney transplant

IU Health University Hospital

Two lifetime friends make pandemic history with kidney transplant

They have been friends for more than three decades and when one needed a kidney, the other became his donor. They represent the first living donor transplant at IU Health since the start of the coronavirus.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

They live about six miles apart and have known each other for years. Ken Delaney didn’t think too much about the fact that he was donating a kidney to his neighbor Bernard “Tony” Duncheon.

“In our small community everyone knows everyone. Helping each other is just what we do,” said Delaney. He lives in Cannelburg, Ind. in southern Daviess County – a town of just over 100 people. Duncheon lives to the west in Montgomery, Ind. The friends are connected by a short drive along US 50.

This week they made another connection. Delaney became the first living kidney donor and Duncheon became the first living donor recipient at IU Health since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

“When the pandemic first started, we began cutting back on transplant surgeries. We immediately postponed all living donor kidney transplants and ultimately decreased or stopped most abdominal organ transplants except for liver transplants,” said Dr. Jonathan Fridell, Chief of Abdominal Transplantation at IU Health. “We gradually resumed kidney and pancreas transplants and now, adding living kidney donors is the last step to resuming to normal activity.”

A set of guidelines has been issued to all transplant patients to minimize the risk of complications before and after surgery. All patients will be tested for COVID-19 before surgery. If either a living donor or a living donor recipient tests positive for the virus the surgery will be cancelled or postponed. Patients are urged to practice universal guidelines such as frequently washing hands for 20 seconds, avoid touching the face, disinfecting surfaces, and minimizing exposure to public places and crowded environments.

“I think writing out instructions is a good way to communicate with all transplant patients,” said Dr. Fridell. “I don’t think these practices will go away as long as COVID is an issue. “Transplant is life saving and so it is significant that we are able to resume activities, but we’re doing so with extreme caution and keeping a close watch on the data and numbers. We will be vigilant and ready to pull back again if necessary,” he said.

Duncheon’s surgery was originally scheduled for April. When it was postponed, he and his wife of 35 years, Lisa Marie, isolated in their rural home. A banker, Duncheon worked from home and hasn’t seen his three sons for weeks.

“I’m too close to the finish line to put myself in harm’s way now,” said Duncheon, 60. He was in good health until about three years ago. He went to an ice hockey game and he thinks breathing in the cold air caused him to catch bronchitis that then turned into pneumonia. More complications followed and at one point he was hospitalized and breathing with the assistance of a ventilator.

“At the time, they said they were giving my kidneys a punch so I knew there might be problems later,” said Duncheon. Routine blood work two years ago showed his kidneys were compromised. He started dialysis four weeks ago. While he awaited his transplant he worked closely with his IU Health coordinator Laura Ward preparing for surgery.

Delaney, 68, first met Duncheon’s grandparents through St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in nearby Corning, Ind. He learned from a family member that Duncheon was in need of a kidney donor.

“To be honest I didn’t think there would be any way possible it would be me. I was 67 when I started the process and I thought there was no way they’d even consider me as a candidate,” said Delaney. Donate Life America offers guidelines for those considering living donation. Individuals should be in good overall physical and mental health and older than 18.

As the testing continued he said he talked to his wife, Judeanne, and told her he thought he might be a match. A living donation was a chance for Delaney to save a life while he was still living. It also offered Duncheon an alternative to waiting for a deceased donor.

Donate Life America reports one in four living donors are not biologically related to their recipient. There are approximately113,000 American men, women, and children awaiting lifesaving organ transplants. Of those, 82 percent are awaiting a kidney.

“My faith is very strong and I prayed a lot about this,” said Delaney. “I was in the fields helping my son-in-law and my transplant coordinator, Tracy Perry, had scheduled a call that morning. Just as she called, Tony happened to show up to offer us cold drinks. I can’t honestly tell you the last time I saw Tony in the fields. I looked at that as a sign that I was supposed to donate my kidney.”

An avid motorcycle rider, Delaney said he was on a trip back from Amarillo, Texas when he got what he thought was another sign. “We passed not one but two billboards with the name of Tony’s oldest son, Nick. The next chance I got, I stopped and called my wife and I said, ‘we’re moving forward. Tony doesn’t have a good kidney but I’ve got two.’”

On May 6th Delaney was in one operating room under the care of IU Health surgeon Dr. John Powelson. Duncheon was in another operating room in the care of IU Health transplant surgeon Dr. William Goggins.

That day became part of the history of IU Health and part of the history of a pandemic that gripped health facilities around the world.