Longform

Old Wounds and Family Scars

Page 6 of 8

A life-threatening condition became a calculus problem. Curt felt that if he was going to have to make a decision, it had better be an informed one.

Curt couldn't escape from the situation, in spite of his mathematical approach, but Arron, who had already lost one parent, backed away as far as possible.

"We would not hear from Arron for months," Diane remembers.

Autumn says, "[Arron] told me that he just could not handle what was happening."

Both kids were afraid that they would lose their father within the next two years.

In September 1994, a possible donor came up -- a young man who had been killed in a motorcycle accident -- but his kidneys were not a very good match. For an organ match to work, there are six basic proteins in the DNA strand that are compared. A match of four is considered good; Curt and his donor had a match of two.

Curt met with his doctor, Mark Stegal -- now practicing at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota -- and decided to give it a try anyway. When a transplant is performed, the recipient is given immunosuppressive drugs and steroids for the rest of his life to prevent the body from rejecting the organ and to speed the healing process. Curt and his doctors felt those drugs had advanced to a point where they could overcome rejection and that aggressive aftercare treatment would do the trick.

Curt would also be able to get a new pancreas from the donor; if his body accepted it, he would no longer be a diabetic. It was a big gamble, but he felt the risk was worth it.

On September 9, Stegal performed a pancreatic and double kidney transplant.

At first Curt felt fine, and he was discharged from the hospital after two weeks in satisfactory condition. But soon after, his body began to reject the organs in spite of the immunosuppressive drugs. He then contracted a bacterial and fungal infection in his body cavity and suffered a heart attack. For the next two months, Curt was in the hospital more than he was out of it. If it wasn't complications from the infection, it was more heart problems.

Since both kids were living out of state, it was easy for Diane to keep the specifics from them. "Sometimes you don't want [the kids] to know everything," she says. "Autumn was a bundle of nerves, and I didn't know how much to tell. It wasn't fair to them in both ways, and I cut off a lot of people because I did not want them to know how bad [Curt] was. On such short notice, you can't prepare for something like this. I spent all of my time thinking about [Curt]."

When Autumn came home for Thanksgiving in 1994, she found out the whole story and became furious with Diane. "I was so shocked when I got there," she says. "I thought, 'You fucking bitch -- you didn't tell me he was that sick.'" She decided to move back to Colorado to be close to the family. "I wanted to know what was going on," she says.

Curt had dropped from 150 pounds to 115 and was spending eight hours a day with an IV stuck either in his arm or near his collarbone. His surgery incision was a nightmare in itself. The doctors felt it would be best for the wound to heal from the inside out, so once Curt came home from the hospital, Diane had to irrigate it several times a day.

By Christmas, he was in worse shape than he was at Thanksgiving and underwent an angioplasty to relieve a blockage in his coronary artery.

Because of the medication, he was throwing up all the time and couldn't keep food down. He was becoming more and more depressed. "There were times he would rant and rave about the drugs he had to take, how he could not exercise anymore, and how he couldn't work," Diane says. "I couldn't do anything. I felt so out of control. But you become a real advocate for the patient as a result."

Diane began dealing with his doctors more often and handled his insurance work. She simply took care of the man while he was touch-and-go for the better part of two years. She worked, cooked, cleaned, did everything -- and as a result, the kids began to take a much softer approach to their mom.

"Mom and I were able to lay a lot of ghosts to rest," Autumn says. "I found that she loves my father more than anything else, and that proved a lot to me. The issue of 'You're not my mom' went away."

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Sean Neumann