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He'll do anything for love

Andy Mason adores his wife, Debbie. How much? Enough to donate a kidney.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published February 13, 2004

VALRICO - A heart for love. An eternity knot. A tear drop that came with marriage.

But it was the brown kidney bean on the charm bracelet, a 10th-anniversary gift, that made Debbie Mason laugh out loud. And cry at night. Their marriage is truly a shared life.

Debbie and Andy Mason celebrated their anniversary in August at Dana Point, Calif. Just the two of them, and the glowing machine that filled the night with a hum, like coffee percolating. UPS shipped Debbie's dialysis treatment to their room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Andy organized the trip in a couple of weeks, a last vacation before they walked into Tampa General Hospital, where he would give his wife the most unusual gift of all: his left kidney.

Before they left, Andy gave her the bracelet, complete with a starfish for the waterfront home they plan to build at Apollo Beach.

It was all so much more than Debbie expected 18 years ago when she met Andy, a nice guy even at 17. She was three years older and a residential assistant on the girls' side of Rawlings Hall at the University of Florida. He told his friends that she looked like someone he'd like to know.

Not long after, Debbie's life changed when a routine application for health care coverage was rejected. It took her two years of correspondence to learn why.

Her kidney disease had a long and complicated name: Type 1 Membranoproliferative Glomerulonephritis. It mostly affects people younger than 30. Andy still has trouble pronouncing it. People who deal with the disease call it MPGN.

Doctors think Debbie may have developed a rare strain of strep throat known to cause the MPGN, but can't say for sure. The condition causes the body's immune system to attack the kidneys, scarring and eventually shrinking the vital organs.

Debbie's life went on. She and Andy earned master's degrees in accounting, married and moved to Brandon, where Debbie had grown up.

Bearing children posed dangers to her health, so they spoiled a mixed Maltese and Lhasa apso named Cooper. Debbie told few friends about her failing kidneys.

"A lot of times if I talked to another person, I almost detected this faint fear in their eyes - "She's not asking me to donate,' " Debbie said.

Debbie's health deteriorated so slowly, she did not realize when she started feeling bad. Every three months, she went to the doctor for blood work. She had been stable for so long that she thought she could stay that way forever.

She and Andy never discussed the possibility of his donating a kidney. It was a bridge maybe never to cross, a dilemma even for a husband who could finish his wife's sentences while discussing her medical history.

Andy kept his thoughts private. He first heard about organ donation when the state started asking for donors on driver's licenses during his teenage years.

"Gross," he remembers thinking.

Last summer, Debbie and Andy attended a Leadership Brandon retreat. Andy watched Debbie race up a pole for a team-building exercise. She pushed harder, faster, than anyone else.

Only he knew about the catheter tube taped against her belly. By early 2003, Debbie's kidneys were working at less than 15 percent of normal function and deteriorating fast.

In March, her doctor started her on peritoneal dialysis, a treatment to clean her blood. A machine pumped dialysis fluid into her abdomen each night, then drained it and replenished it with fresh fluid. The sugary liquid attracted waste materials, which then left her body.

The process dehydrated her, and her blood pressure dropped. Her 5-foot frame ached from carrying fluid all day, enough to fill a large soda bottle.

But it was more energy than she had known for a long time.

"I feel good," Debbie remembered telling her doctors, who warned that the dialysis was not a long-term solution. "Do I need to get a transplant?" she asked.

The doctors were resolved. By now, Andy was, too. And he understood that a living donor - a healthy adult with an extra kidney - was Debbie's best chance for a successful transplant. Her mother, sister and brother-in-law wanted to donate. So did the husband of a close friend, and a business partner of Andy's.

And Andy, which surprised Debbie.

"For him to be so adamant that "I want to do this for you,' I was shocked," she said. "He gets cold and clammy when they draw blood."

More than 2,000 Floridians wait for a kidney transplant.

Andy knew how hard it would be to find an outside donor. And he wanted no regrets.

"I wanted Debbie to have a better life, to have her life back. To have the energy she had when I first met her, and not to be sort of dragged down by physical limitations," he said.

LifeLink, a nonprofit organization that oversees organ donations for West Central Florida, handled the screening process. A donor had to be in good health and match Debbie's A-positive blood type. Then screeners checked for similar blood identifiers, called antigens.

Debbie's sister was the first match but was ruled out for high blood pressure. Andy was next on the list, but doctors crossed him off, too, because tests suggested he had high blood pressure.

Andy, an O-positive universal donor, was perplexed. He never before had high blood pressure. Without telling Debbie, he demanded a second opinion.

A 24-hour blood pressure monitor cleared him. His kidney was a match for Debbie.

"Then we just let go," Andy said. "Whatever will be, will be."

Surgery was scheduled after the California vacation. Friends organized a spreadsheet of volunteers to cook meals for a month. Cooper stayed with a dog sitter for two weeks.

On Sept. 18, Andy and Debbie checked into the eighth floor of Tampa General.

Andy went into surgery first. Debbie still was alert when his doctor told her team to prepare the transplant patient. Andy's kidney was ready for his wife.

Four days later, Andy left with a souvenir photo of his kidney, pictured in the surgeon's hand.

When Debbie was released Sept. 25, she could put her hand on her abdomen and feel Andy's kidney inside. She kept her hand tightly over it, fearing it would slip away if she let go.

There was one complication: An infection sent her back to the hospital for six days. Andy was at her side when the Bucs played the Colts, the only game he missed all season.

Husband-and-wife kidney transplants are more common than one would think, LifeLink reports. Five of 45 living kidney donors at Tampa General Hospital last year were spouses of patients.

An organ can save a life without changing it. Four months later, Andy and Debbie are back at work. Tax season approaches. He wants a vacation. It's still dangerous for her to travel.

"We've gone back to our grouchy old selves pretty quickly," Debbie said.

On Valentine's Day, however, she planned to treat him to champagne, chocolates and strawberries at the site of their future home.

"I don't really think about it until we're in bed at night, and he's starting to snore," she said, eyes moist with emotion. "That's when it really hits me, what he's done for me."

Friends pointed out that Andy's act was, in a way, selfish.

"I like to spend time with you," Andy said. "I want you to be healthy and happy."

- Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or lstein@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 12:52:02]

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