TILTON — For Hunter Corliss, 22, of Franklin, who crafts ice cream sundaes, blizzards, and Oreo cookie confections at the Dairy Queen, this is a particularly sweet end to summer.
Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 marked the one-year anniversary of Corliss’s kidney transplant. The organ was donated by her boss, Bianca Dion of New Hampton, who is owner-manager of the ice cream drive-in where Corliss has worked for the last five years, since she was a student at Franklin High School. It was an unusual gift from an unusually caring employer.
“I feel great. I feel grateful,” said Corliss. “She didn’t have to do that. It’s a real big deal to have someone donate something that’s a part of them. A little bit of you feels like you don’t know how to pay them back for everything.”
The gift has gone both ways.
“For me, it was a rewarding thing to do,” said Dion, adding that she feels no differently now, and is no less energetic with one kidney instead of two. “In my mid-40s it gave me purpose, something I could be proud of. It fulfilled me because it was right and good to do.”
This story started with Corliss’s mother and aunt and sister – who received kidney transplants as teenagers, for a form of kidney disease that they did not realize was hereditary. Corliss’s older sister was diagnosed with kidney disease, then rejected the transplant she received, went back on dialysis, and passed away in 2017 at age 24. The family watched her wither, unable to expel toxins – the consequence of kidney failure. For the family, the question loomed: What will happen to Hunter?
Both Corliss and her sister were born with a FSGS, which stands for focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. Their mother and aunt have a variant of the condition, which required kidney transplants, but was believed to be non-transmittable to offspring.
Corliss started to feel poorly in high school. She was constantly tired and frequently unable to pass much urine. She woke up constantly with a swollen face, and her ankles were puffy by the end of a work day. She became accustomed to that and didn’t automatically suspect malfunctioning kidneys. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she eventually received the transplant surgery, Corliss learned how to perform dialysis at home, which enabled her to filter her own blood. She was resigned to a somewhat complicated existence, and wondered if it meant a shortened life.
In high school, her levels of creatinine, a laboratory measure of kidney function, declined further. When Corliss told her art teacher that she thought it was time to seek a transplant, the teacher responded, “Oh, that’s great!” That instant optimism stunned Corliss, and made her view her own situation in a different light, and think perhaps that her own fate was not sealed.
“You’re a little nervous. You think, What if something happens to me? You have to reason with yourself that your story’s different and it doesn’t have to” end poorly, Corliss said.
The goal then was to find a donor, which can be a years-long process. According to the National Kidney Foundation, there are approximately 109,000 people currently on the organ transplant waiting list in the U.S, and nearly 94,000 are in line for a kidney.
Kidney transplant surgery has been perfected over decades and is the most common form of organ transplant, considered safe for both donors and recipients. But awareness and availability of donors lags, a situation exacerbated by COVID.
Research has shown that patients who receive kidneys from individuals who are still living fare much better than those whose kidneys come from people who have died. Kidneys from living donors last longer – on average, 15-20 years, compared to 10 to 15 years when kidneys are gifted after death. Each year, an estimated 1 in 65,000 children in the United States experiences kidney failure, according to the Kidney Foundation.
As Dion learned more about Corliss’ situation, she thought about ways she could help. She got tested and discovered that her own blood type was O positive, which made her a universal donor. Further screening revealed that Dion was in optimal health, and her kidney could be safely utilized by Corliss.
“I never had a history in my family of anything kidney related. I knew the odds were in my favor that I’d never develop something like that,” said Dion. “It’s a personal decision. It has to be thought about for individual reasons. As much as it helped Hunter, it had a positive effect on me, too.”
She and Corliss hope that sharing their story will prompt others to consider donating kidneys. Corliss said a local nephrology and dialysis practice that had been part of Lakes Region General Hospital told the family that a relatively high number of their kidney disease patients live in Franklin. The condition is generally not perceivable unless you know someone personally. Most people regard kidney failure as an isolated or relatively rare occurrence, confined to older people with chronic ailments.
This fall, Corliss’s mother is celebrating her 30th year with a donor’s kidney – a milestone that cheers everyone in her family.
“My plan is not to go to college right now, because I don’t know what I want to do,” Corliss said. “I would like to travel a little bit.”
She reflects with awe on the new lease she’s received because of Dion. “It’s a big thing to do for someone,” she said. “I don’t think people realize how many people out there need a transplant.”
For more information, go to www.kidney.org.