By Mary Ellen Bianco

Dealing with two major life changing situations at once was challenging for Karen, but she had a strong support system. Photos by Patti Hartog 

In January 2013, Karen Reynolds was preparing to donate a kidney to her then-32-year-old son, Tommy, who was in renal failure. She was screened at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Kidney-Pancreas Transplant Program in Nashville. “I passed every test,” Karen says. “I was 62 and very healthy, so the doctors didn’t think it would be an issue for me.”

Karen just needed to have her regularly scheduled mammogram back home in Louisville. That final appointment started Karen and her family on a journey from despair to overwhelming joy.

During a manual exam, Karen’s doctor felt a lump in her left breast and ordered an ultrasound. The result was a devastating diagnosis. “I was in Home Depot when the doctor called to tell me I had breast cancer,” Karen says. “I cried in the back of the store and then got in my car and cried some more.”

Karen says the hardest part was having to tell Tommy she couldn’t be his donor. “He was awesome and made it a lot easier for me,” she says.

The close relationship Karen has with her family helped her maintain a positive attitude in spite of the challenges.  

After a consultation with a surgeon, Karen and her husband, Tom, left the office knowing she would have a mastectomy of her left breast for ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer.

“It kind of put everything on hold. We were in a lot of turmoil at that point,” Karen says. “The fact that I had cancer seemed anti-climactic because of my concern for Tommy. I just wanted to get past it.”

On April 11, Karen had a mastectomy as well as the removal of axillary lymph nodes. She chose to put reconstruction on hold, and the surgeon didn’t encourage it at that point due to the risk of infection.

The pathology was negative, and there was no need for chemotherapy or radiation. Karen was released from the care of her oncologist. “My outcome was the best I could have asked for,” she says.
As Karen recovered, the challenge was for Tommy to find a donor. The family knew what would be involved in the transplant procedure because Tom had already had a kidney transplant in 2001 due to polycystic kidney disease, in which cysts fill up the kidneys and gradually reduce function, leading to kidney failure. A co-worker of Tom’s had offered to be tested and donated his kidney when he was confirmed as a match.

Tommy was diagnosed with the same inherited disorder when he was 10, and at age 32, the transplant was the only option. Tommy and his wife researched transplant centers in Chicago, Lexington, and Nashville. Vanderbilt in Nashville was chosen because of the large number of successful live transplants that are performed there. “Our son-in-law was on staff at Vanderbilt, so everyone was comfortable with the choice,” Karen says.

Tommy’s three sisters were unable to be donors, so they reached out to friends and family. A few people had been tested but weren’t a match.

But hope arrived through the kindness of neighbors. Karen and Tom were friends with the Ring family, who had lived in their neighborhood. The Rings told their son Brandon about Tommy’s situation, and although Brandon and Tommy didn’t know each other well, Brandon offered to be tested. He was a match and volunteered to donate a kidney.

“Brandon was very brave and selfless,” Karen says. “He is married with three children, and we’ll always be grateful to him and his family.”

Six weeks before the transplant, Tommy had both kidneys removed and went on dialysis. The successful surgery was performed on December 4, 2013.

Both Tommy and Brandon had a large number of family members there to support them. “I really don’t have words,” Karen says. “It takes a very special person to donate an organ. It gave Tommy his life back.”

The families get together frequently and make sure to celebrate the anniversary of the transplant.

Karen feels optimistic about the future and is grateful for her friendship with the Ring family. 

In 2014, Karen began the process of breast reconstruction and completed it this March. “I really hemmed and hawed about doing it, but I’m glad I had it done,” Karen says. She and her family rejoice in the fact that her health is good, as is Tommy’s and Brandon’s. “What got us through everything was the support from our family and friends,” Karen says. “Our faith helped us to face these challenges.”

Karen takes comfort in knowing she and her son Tommy no longer need to be preoccupied with health issues.