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Sister comes to aid of Peters woman with life-saving kidney donation

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Peters township resident Geri Whalen, 33, right, who was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was 9 years old, received a kidney donation from her sister Dana Christner, 40, of Salisbury, N.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The National Foundation for Transplants, a Memphis-based nonprofit, is helping Whalen and her family raise money for post-surgery costs that won’t be covered by Whalen’s insurance.
Peters township resident Geri Whalen, 33, left, who was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was 9 years old, received a kidney donation from her sister Dana Christner, 40, of Salisbury, N.C., third from left, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The National Foundation for Transplants, a Memphis-based nonprofit, is helping Whalen and her family raise money for post-surgery costs that won’t be covered by Whalen’s insurance. Also pictured are Whalen’s and Christner’s other sisters, Hampton resident Jennifer LaBella, 37, second from left, and Sondra Hathaway, 41, of Peters.

When a doctor told Geri Whalen in 2007 that she eventually would need a kidney transplant, she didn't have to look for a donor, she said. In fact, she didn't even have to ask for a donation, the Peters resident said.

Whalen's sister offered one of her kidneys.

“I was blessed with good health, and I just had a gut feeling that we would be a good match,” said Whalen's sister Dana Christner, 40, of Salisbury, N.C.

On Wednesday, about two months after Whalen was told by a doctor that she would need a transplant soon, Christner donated one of her kidneys to Whalen, 33, at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.

“There are no words for how that feels, just knowing that I wasn't going to have to wait five years. I wasn't going to have to get sicker and sicker and maybe get to the point where I wouldn't even be healthy enough to get the transplant because I'd waited so long,” Whalen said.

Whalen was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was 9, she said.

After the birth of her son in 2007, she learned she had developed kidney disease, said Whalen, who is married to Adam, 32. The couple are the parents of Eve, 9, Elle, 7, and Ian, 5.

After Whalen recovers from the kidney transplant, she will be added to a waiting list for a pancreas donation.

The average kidney transplant costs $250,000 and a pancreas transplant costs more than $285,000, according to the Memphis-based National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit that helps patients raise money to pay for medical expenses.

Whalen, who quit her job as a waitress in December, receives health insurance coverage through her husband's employer.

The foundation estimates that at least $25,000 will be needed to pay for expenses not covered by insurance after Whalen's transplants.

“So we're trying to raise as much money as possible so that we can cover the costs of both procedures,” said Whalen's sister, Jennifer LaBella, 37, of Hampton.

The foundation has set up a donation page for Whalen on its website, www.transplants.org, under the “Find or Become an NFT Patient” tab.

Also, the family is hosting a fundraiser at Del's Bar & Ristorante in Bloomfield on Jan. 24.

Christner hopes that publicizing her and her sister's experiences with a kidney transplant will help dispel myths about organ donation.

“Donors don't require dialysis after donations, and the hospital stay is 1 12 to two days and they get back to previous activity in several weeks,” said Dr. Amit D. Tevar, surgical director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at UPMC's Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute, Oakland. He was a member of the donor evaluation team and met Whalen and Christner.

Donors are evaluated carefully to make sure they do not stand a risk of kidney issues, he said. “Our goal is to make sure they are able to donate a kidney without any complications for the remainder of their life,” he said.

“We really want to encourage living organ donation because I've learned a lot through this process that I didn't know,” Christner said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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