You know how going to your spouse’s class reunion can be a labor of love? You’re there, hanging out with people you may only see at reunions, smiling at insider jokes you don’t understand and watching your other half dance with others a little maniacally as they project their inner high schooler.
When’s it’s not your reunion, the event is just one of those things you do and don’t think about again until the next one rolls around.
Unless you are Carl Hermann and pick up a vital body part at your wife’s reunion. That’s worth going to.
This wasn’t quite like that, but close.
Sheila Schuster attended DeSales Catholic High School with Veronica Klein in what Sheila describes as a small and close-knit class whose reunions have been intimate. The girls graduated in 1981 and Sheila married Dean Proefrock in 1984. Veronica married 1980 Mcloughlin High School graduate Carl Hermann in 1985.
Before there was ever a five-year reunion, however, Carl and Veronica were dealt a most unwelcome wedding gift. “My polycystic kidney disease was discovered right after we were married,” Carl said.
The genetic, slow-progressing disease is usually not found until it’s been working its bad mojo for a long time, he explained. As clusters of the benign cysts develop in the kidneys — and elsewhere in some people — most sufferers develop high blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms can also include back pain, headaches, a swollen abdomen, kidney stones and infections. And, eventually, kidney failure.
Carl, 50, was headed there. Two years ago his nagging symptoms kicked up a notch, forcing him to eliminate certain foods and follow other restrictions. He continued to work full time for a Walla Walla County road crew, however, and never considered he might not get a handle on his disease.
By the time the Hermanns and Proefrocks attended their 2012 reunion, Carl was worried. His kidneys were losing function, his energy level was bottoming and the dad his kids needed was spending most of his post-work time on the couch.
Sheila remembers when Veronica posted on Facebook her excitement about her husband’s placement on a kidney transplant waiting list. In comments following the post, someone asked what it takes to be a donor.
“Willingness is an asset, but that doesn’t always mean a good fit,” Sheila said. “I wondered who might follow up on it.”
As it turned out, the posting planted a seed in Sheila’s mind about becoming a donor.
As of December, there were nearly 95,000 Americans waiting for kidney transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. About 3,000 people a month join those hoping to get a kidney, and 13 people die every day as they wait. In 2011, 4,903 people died while waiting, even as 16,812 transplants took place.
Sheila, 50, didn’t know any of that then.
Without talking to Veronica, she began researching everything about donating a kidney, reading blog posts from donors who’d walked the walk. “Also, I’m just kinky enough to find a live (operating room) site, so I sat and watched a three-hour kidney removal,” she said with a laugh.
Sheila’s investigation revealed there is a low death rate for donors and that medical facilities are “very conscientious about taking care of the donors,” she noted. “People kept making sure I didn’t feel pressured.”
She took a week or two to make a final decision. “My husband would say my mind was made up as soon as I sent off for the information,” Sheila said.
Dean Proefrock was completely supportive of his wife’s plan, attending all the appointments with Sheila. Their daughters — Brandy, 28, and Jennifer, 21 — also stepped up. One accompanied her mom to Spokane for surgery while the other stayed behind to manage the family’s business, Postal Annex+.
In Milton-Freewater, the Hermanns had been told someone was being tested for a possible kidney donation, but knew nothing else. Their doctor had advised them not to get their hopes up, Carl said.
Once Carl had another health scare — heart valve replacement — she couldn’t stand it any longer. There was one test left to confirm, but all signs were pointing to “go,” Sheila said, her voice catching in her throat.
“I told Dean I had to call.”
When he heard Sheila’s news over the phone, he sat in shock, Carl said. “It’s hard to even describe it, that she was willing to do that.”
His wife’s classmate couldn’t truly know what she was offering, he added — freedom from the tyranny of the traditional dialysis schedule and a hope of watching his kids grow up, for starters.
On Jan. 29, buoyed by an MP3 player filled with Christian music and secure in her knowledge this is what her god intended, Sheila gave Carl one of her two healthy kidneys at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.
The act fulfilled her desire to make the most of what she’s been given, Sheila added.
Carl recently worked his first full day back on the job and arrived home with unexpected energy left, he told me. “Thanks to Sheila, and God, I have my health back to enjoy many more years with my family.”
There really aren’t words for what happened and how it happened, he added.
“Sheila is the definition of a true friend, and will always be in my daily prayers.”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or firstname.lastname@example.org