Cynthia Houseal was 24 years old and pregnant with her second child when she learned she had kidney problems.
“I was spilling protein into my urine,” she said. “Fortunately, it was discovered early, and I had a great primary care provider who kept track of me with regular tests for many years.”
Over more than 20 years, Houseal’s kidneys deteriorated gradually. She also developed Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
“I had a lot of flags,” she recalls. “I was overweight, and kidney problems ran in my family.”
To counteract her diabetes and high blood pressure, doctors recommended gastric bypass surgery in 2005. Houseal, who weighed 285 pounds before the surgery, shed 110 pounds.
Although her problems with hypertension remained, her diabetes subsided when she lost weight. She also embraced exercise and healthy eating.
“I went to the gym five days a week for at least an hour. I watched my portions and my protein intake,” she said. “If I had not lost the weight and made healthy lifestyle changes, I would have been on dialysis years ago.”
She continued to lead a productive life, raising a family and working as a registered nurse in the Emergency Department at Wilmington Hospital.
But in 2009, her decline began to accelerate. She was wracked with fatigue. Instead of working out five days a week, she could only manage two or three days. She needed naps to gather enough energy to do her household chores.
Houseal wondered how much time she would get to spend with her beloved granddaughter, the only survivor of triplets born prematurely.
“She is a miracle, my purpose, my reason for living,” she said.
By fall 2010, her kidney function was less than 20 percent. Her doctor advised her to get on the transplant list.
“I was devastated, fearing my health would impact my career as a nurse, which I love,” she said. “One day I couldn’t go to work because my feet were so full of fluid I couldn’t get into my shoes.”
In October 2011, she officially went on the list. She experienced an immediate connection with the team at the Christiana Care Transplant Program.
“I was absolutely amazed at the level of caring and teamwork I experienced as a patient,” she said. “In addition to great doctors and nurses, there is a social worker and someone to help patients sort out their finances.”
Because her blood type is B+, a type shared by only 9.4 percent of the people in the United States, she expected a long wait for a donor.
Her son volunteered to donate one of his kidneys. But before he began the lengthy screening process, the team at the Transplant Program called with an unexpected message: “We have a perfect match.”
“I was getting this great gift because someone’s family decided to donate a loved one’s organ at a time when they had to be experiencing tremendous sorrow,” she said. “I was overwhelmed by their thoughtfulness.”
Like Houseal, the donor’s mother had been a Christiana Care nurse. The two women have exchanged letters but have never met.
Her transplant was performed in December 2011 by Velma Scantlebury-White, M.D., associate director of the transplant program.
“Dr. Scantlebury-White is an amazing surgeon, very straightforward, very confident, and I felt an instant change the moment I came out of surgery,” she said. “I felt lighter. I felt better. I had more energy.”
Soon, Houseal was caring for patients again in the Emergency Department. She rides bikes with her granddaughter, who is now an active 5-year-old.
At 55, she is back in school, working on her master’s degree in nursing education. Her son is pursuing a master’s degree in social work and is doing an internship with the transplant program.
“My outlook on life goes further into the future,” she said. “I wake up feeling grateful and healthy. I talk to patients in renal failure, and I tell them that I have had a transplant.”
She expressed her gratitude in a speech at Christiana Care’s annual Donor Day, saying: “Each and every day I marvel at this second chance in life. It would not have been possible if not for people like you, who at the time of a great loss, were able to think of others, and due to your selfless act of kindness, understanding, generosity and caring provide a wonderful second chance at life. On behalf of those like myself who have received gifts of life, your act of gallantry will forever be appreciated and never forgotten.”