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Cranberry kidney recipient's winning essay lands her in Rose Bowl Parade

| Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009

In the 11 years since she received a kidney transplant, Nikki McKenna graduated from college and got married.

"This takes a special type of character and determination to continue to live your life. She has gone to school, finished school and gotten married, pretty much what most people her age have done," said Ron Shapiro, the surgeon at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh who performed McKenna's transplant surgery in 1998.

McKenna, 30, has been selected as a winner of an essay contest sponsored by Astellas Pharma Inc., the Japanese manufacturer of an anti-rejection drug. As winner, she will ride in the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year's Day.

There were 185 submissions to the contest. This year's contest was not the first time McKenna, who lives in Cranberry, submitted an essay.

"In the past, I have put through everything that people go through when they get sick. This time, I wrote more about the positive things," McKenna said.

Looking back over half her life, McKenna's essay credits family and friends, her high school teachers, doctors and nurses, even people she does not know.

"Keeping a positive attitude when you have to take numerous medications, deal with physical and mental issues, and go to dialysis is pretty tough. I didn't think that this was possible. However, I was wrong. " she wrote.

McKenna's medical condition has dominated more than half of her life since, at the age of 14, one of her legs became swollen.

"I didn't think much of it at first. Then another leg became swollen, and it did not stop. That's when I was diagnosed with kidney disease," McKenna said.

Two years later, at the age of 16 and after being on a waiting list, both of McKenna's kidneys failed, meaning that dialysis would no longer work.

That's when McKenna's father, Bernie Redlinger, stepped in.

"He donated to me when I was diagnosed with complete kidney failure. He was the only person who had the same blood type," she said.

Redlinger did not think long about his decision to help his daughter.

"This was all really hard for me my wife, Nikki and her sister. But if the transplant lasted just a week, it still would have been worth it," said Redlinger, a dispatcher for US Airways who lives in Mt. Washington.

A decade after her transplant, McKenna has to pay more attention than most people to minor ailments. Five years ago, strep throat landed her in the hospital.

"What I worry about most is getting sick, getting the flu and a common cold. A high fever would put me in the hospital," she said.

Yet health risks have not dampened her enthusiasm for physical activity, which includes walks, basketball, biking, hiking, camping and fishing in locations such as North Park, Moraine State Park, Presque Isle State Park and Conneaut Lake in Crawford County.

Last year, she played volleyball, basketball and tennis at the U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh.

"People sometimes tell me I don't look like I have had a transplant. I'm not always sure what they mean," she said.

Doctors perform about 18,000 kidney transplants in the United States every year, and demand for kidneys outstrips the number of people who donate them after death.

"The big problem is that there are an insufficient number of donors to meet the demand, which makes living donations an important option," Shapiro said.

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