Rock Springs Native Donates Kidney to a Stranger in Rawlins

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ROCK SPRINGS – Would you donate a kidney if someone you loved needed it? What about to a complete stranger?

Toni Van Valkenburg would and, in fact, she did. She went through surgery, giving up one of her healthy kidneys, as an anonymous donation.

“It was kinda on my bucket list,” she said with a laugh, drawing a check mark in the air. “Check!”
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To Donate, or Not to Donate?

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Toni said she had always wanted to give. Right after high school, a friend of hers donated a kidney to her aunt.

“I thought that is the neatest thing anyone could ever do. And I thought…someday,” she said.

Years later, Toni had a friend whose aunt needed a kidney. Toni decided to go through the process of seeing if she was a match. During the six month screening process, the aunt received a deceased donor’s kidney.

Soon after that, she had another friend who posted on Facebook that a friend needed a kidney. Toni and this Facebook friend weren’t a match and while going through the process to do a paired exchange, this person also received a deceased donor’s kidney.

“They kept calling me the lucky charm,” Toni said.

But she still wanted to donate. Working in the medical field for many years, Toni had seen what kidney disease does to people. Her husband’s grandma went through dialysis, which involves being hooked up to a machine several times a week to filter out the toxins that the kidneys would normally handle.

“After that, I said, ‘Can I just do it? Somebody’s gotta want my kidney.” There are 97,632 people are currently on the kidney transplant list, with only about 5,000 people choosing to be a live donor. Many people spend 5 years or more on the list.

The need is certainly there and so they scheduled the surgery for April 2017.
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Meet Raj

Raj is a petroleum chemist who lives in Rawlins. He came to Wyoming from Nepal to study Chemistry at the University of Wyoming. He’s married with two young children. And, Raj had been on the kidney transplant list for more than a year.

Before the transplant, Raj wasn’t feeling well. He had been feeling this way for more than five years and the doctors couldn’t find any underlying cause of the kidney failure. He was within a month of needing dialysis.

“My life was terrible. I was exhausted all the time. I was very sick,” Raj said. “I had the feeling that death was looming.”

Raj and his wife got the call while driving home from Laramie.

“It was the most unexpected moment. They called and said, ‘Good news for you. You have an anonymous live kidney donor.’ I cried. My wife and I both cried,” he said.
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Believing in Miracles

The surgery took place at the University of Utah, which is one of the top transplant facilities in the country. They have one of the highest 1-year success rates for kidney transplants.

After the surgery, Toni and Raj were allowed to meet if they both wanted to. That first meeting occurred in the hallway.  Toni said she knew who the recipient was when she saw his family.

“His (Raj’s) wife started bawling. She was so sweet. She gave me a hug and said, ‘You have no idea what this means to me.’”

Because Toni is a live donor, Raj’s new kidney should last 20-40 years. A deceased donor’s kidney only lasts on average 8-10 years.

Toni said she was so excited to see that he was in Wyoming because being born and raised here, we love to help fellow Wyomingites.

“Meeting him was everything I could ever have dreamed it would be,” said Toni.  “He was incredibly grateful. Truly sincere. He told me, ‘I now believe in miracles.’”
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‘A Future for My Children’

Recovering from the surgery certainly wasn’t easy, Toni said. It’s usually harder on the donor than the recipient, but she said it was well worth it.

She would recommend that other people look into being a live donor if they are healthy enough and they want to change someone’s life. She doesn’t worry if she’ll end up needing a kidney down the road. She is very healthy and has family members who would donate if she needed it. And, if something happens, she will go to the top of the transplant list because she was a donor.

“It’s the best thing I have ever done in my life. It’s the most rewarding,” said Toni.

Just six weeks after the surgery, Raj said he’s feeling, “way, way, way better. I can do so many things in my life and it’s all because of Toni.”
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I want to thank Toni from the core of my heart. It sounds corny or cliché, but it’s not cliché. She saved my life. She gave me new hope and she gave a future to my kids,” said Raj.
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Toni has already gone to visit Raj in Rawlins and he’s making plans to visit her family soon. They share a bond now and they never run out of things to talk about.

“Without her, I don’t know what condition I’d be in now. Probably in a very terrible situation. She taught be about caring about other people selflessly. So I was given a wonderful lesson in my life,” said Raj. “In the future, I can follow her example as my role model and try to do, to the best of my ability, the same for other people.”
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Becoming a Live Donor

If you’re interested in becoming a kidney donor, whether you have a relative in need or you’re interested in giving anonymously like Toni, the University of Utah Transplant Center has lots of information about who qualifies and what the procedure entails.