New England woman celebrates ‘unique’ anniversary of kidney transplant

It’s a unique anniversary for New England resident Kay Kuske, it has been 38 years since she received her kidney transplant.

Kay Kuske got to celebrate a unique anniversary of her kidney transplant this year. It has been 38 years since the transplant, she was born in 1938 and she was 38 when she received the new kidney. (Courtesy Photo)
Kay Kuske got to celebrate a unique anniversary of her kidney transplant this year. It has been 38 years since the transplant, she was born in 1938 and she was 38 when she received the new kidney. (Courtesy Photo)

By COLE BENZ | Herald Editor |

It’s a unique anniversary for New England resident Kay Kuske, it has been 38 years since she received her kidney transplant.

Thirty-eight is somewhat of an odd anniversary, when usually celebrations occur at a five, or 10 year mark. But it isn’t so odd when you factor in a couple other numbers associated with Kuske and her operation.

Kuske was born in 1938, and when she had her operation, she was 38 years old, a trifecta of 38.

Kuske, a humble person at heart, was reluctant to tell her story again. But when a heart attack put her in the hospital and doctors checked her creatinine levels, they were stunned with the results. A person’s creatinine level is a measurement of their kidney function.

Kuske’s results came back higher than they had been in months, even years.

“God is just playing a miracle here,” Kuske said. “When the kidney doctor came in and saw the numbers, he was just as excited as I was.”

Kuske took this as a sign that she had to tell her story.

It began in 1970, when Kuske—then 30 years old—was diagnosed with Chronic Glomerulonephritis, a term used to describe many different kinds of kidney diseases. Doctors determined that she would eventually need a transplant, but that would have to wait.

Kuske said at the time you had to “have one foot in the grave” before doctors would perform a transplant operation. Doctors estimated that the transplant would need to take place after three to five years. Kuske’s kidneys made it eight.

It was her positive outlook and forward thinking that made her through what she called a very trying time.

“I was determined to get my babies grown, in case my time was up,” Kuske said.

During those eight years she suffered from exhaustion, but didn’t want people to know she was hurting. The energy level was so low at times that she had to take a break as she came into the house from picking clothes off the line.

“It was a real trying period, because (I thought) ‘aren’t we ready (for the transplant) yet,”” Kuske asked.

After the eight years of wondering when the transplant time would be, her kidneys finally deteriorated enough and doctors were ready to operate.

She was brought to the hospital at the University of Minnesota and had her diseased kidneys removed. She spent six weeks in the hospital receiving dialysis while she healed from the initial procedure.

Both of her older sisters were four point matches to donate a kidney, and both were enthusiastic about giving. So Kuske told her doctor to choose the better candidate.

Her doctor decided that Phyllis Benson, the younger of the two, would be the optimal donator.

Kuske had great relief when she finally had her surgery.

“I was finally ready for it, because I hadn’t felt good for so many years,” Kuske said. “It was really a relief when it finally came.”

In an unfortunate turn of tragic irony, Benson was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1992.

Kuske wanted to give the kidney back, and go on dialysis until another one was made available. But by the time of the discovery, Benson’s cancer had spread too much. Benson passed away at the age of 55. Kuske wonders why it was the kidney she received that stayed healthy.

“Why God gave me the good one,” Kuske asked. “That’s for me, the whole ironic (part) of this business.”

Doctors kept a close eye on Kuske’s kidney after her sister’s diagnosis.

After the kidney operation, Kuske spent more time getting medicine and special serum to prevent her body from rejecting the organ. In total Kuske spent three months at the hospital in Minnesota.

Emotions took over when Kuske was asked what life was like after the operation.

She now carries a unique perspective on life, something many of us will never be able to comprehend.

Kuske said she has a very creative mind and she always likes to work, and for so long she couldn’t perform regular tasks because she was so easily tired.

“I was down to nothing for energy,” Kuske said.

For the first time after eight years she was finally able to do things that brought joy to her life.

When she returned home from her surgery, she spent many days down in Hettinger getting lab work on her kidney function. They checked various levels and made sure the kidney was still being accepted by her body.

The community of New England has showed an outpouring of support for Kuske and her family. Fundraisers were held and and to this day the community rallies around her, even in her latest medical setback.

“New England is the greatest little community,” Kuske said.

One memory came to mind for Kuske. At her five year anniversary, the Plaggemeyers put up a sign near their home and said ‘honk five times it’s Kay’s anniversary.’ Kuske heard all these car horns outside and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Her initial thought was that someone’s cows had escaped their pen, and they were trying to wrangle them together.

When she left for work she figured out what all the noise was about. She even had people calling and honking their horns over the phone.

She suffered a massive heart attack last week and was flown from Hettinger to Bismarck. She is now recovering and hopes she still has more time left, because she still has some unfinished business.

“I’m a quilter,” Kuske said. “I keep telling God I’ve got one more quilt to make.”

Kuskey didn’t spare any words when talking about the kind hospitality she has experienced over the years with West River Health Service. Throughout the years she has been doctoring either at the New England clinic or with the hospital down in Hettinger, and she has become a very familiar face.

“They know me and I know them,” Kuske said.

She even had many staff members and medical professionals come out and wish her well before she was flown to Bismarck last week.

Each year her family gathers to celebrate the anniversary. They haven’t missed once in the 38 years since the operation, and whatever family members are around show up for cake and conversation. On those days, too, Kuske’s thoughts don’t drift far from her late sister, and the tremendous sacrifice she made so her life could be extended. Kuske said her sister’s kids stay in close touch.

“I’m part of their mom, you know,” Kuske said.

Kuske tries to enjoy every day, and give God her appreciation for the extra time by living a fulfilling and wonderful life.

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