When Brandy Feichter marries his son in June, she will officially be part of Jud Spencer's family.
But Feichter is already part of Jud Spencer.
In September of 2011, Feichter donated a kidney that was implanted in Spencer and saved his life or, at the very least, spared him a lifetime of dialysis. Spencer, 62, has polycystic kidney disease. It's an inherited disorder which causes multiple cysts to form in the kidneys, causing them to become enlarged and reducing blood supply. Symptoms often do not appear until middle age.
Spencer learned he had the disease 20 years ago when he had an ultrasound of his abdomen done after a construction accident. About three years ago, the disease progressed rapidly, causing symptoms such as lack of energy and loss of appetite. The outlook was bleak. He faced end-stage kidney failure and a lifetime of being hooked to a machine four hours a day twice a week, or worse.
A transplant was recommended. His wife Carmel offered to donate a kidney and so did Spencer's three sons. But there was another complication. Spencer's blood type 0-negative matches only eight percent of the population. His wife and sons were not matches.
Nine potential donors were found. Eight were rejected for various reasons, such as too many arteries connected to their kidneys.
The ninth donor was Brandy Feichter, Spencer's future daughter-in-law, who will be 30 years old on Christmas and will marry Spencer's son Judson in June. Feichter, who lost her own father in 2005 to a heart attack, has been with Judson for 11 years. She already calls her future father-in-law Dad.
When it first became apparent that Spencer needed a kidney, Feichter was one of the first potential donors tested and was a match, but doctors held out on her, hoping for someone closer to Spencer's size.
As other donors were rejected, a year and a half passed and time became critical.
Feichter said one day when Judson came home depressed over his father's deteriorating health, she volunteered to retest. She went through a battery of tests over a couple of months.
When I passed the last test, it was pretty cool, she said. I told Jud and we both cried. I couldn't wait to tell Dad. We took two cars, hunted him down and flagged him into a parking lot. We stood in a circle and Jud said, ‘Okay, what's going on?' Judson said, ‘I have news for you.' Dad said, ‘Are you pregnant?' I said, ‘No, but, I do have a kidney for you.' We all cried.
Judson felt immediate relief. It was like somebody had put a Volkswagen on my back and made me climb a hill. Then, the Volkswagen rolled off. The feeling of dread went away.
Kidney transplants are the most common organ transplants - 18,000 were performed in 2009 - but removing Feichter's kidney was not routine. Doctors usually remove the left kidney to transplant, which can be done through the belly button with little scarring. But Feichter's left kidney had too many small arteries connected to it. The doctor told Feichter they would have to take her right kidney.
Taking the right kidney leaves a much larger scar because they had to literally maneuver around some other organs, Feichter said. The doctor was very clear on the size of the scar and said he typically doesn't like to cut 20-something-year-olds down their middles. I just remember saying, ‘I don't care; it'll be my war wound and I'll have an awesome story to go with it.'
Leading up to the surgery, Feichter couldn't risk getting sick, not even a cold, because that would postpone surgery. She took a leave of absence from work and stayed inside. When she had to go outside, she wore a surgical mask. She avoided shaking hands and used antibacterial hand soap and body wash.
This was going to be the biggest thing I have ever done in my life and I wasn't going to ruin it, she said. I didn't have many nerves leading up to it. I knew what it was going to take; I knew the pain I was going to be in. I knew the scar I was going to be left with, but none of it mattered. All that mattered to me was making sure Dad gets better.
The surgery was performed at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in September. The treatment was magnificent from day one, Spencer said. Feichter's kidney was transplanted without a hitch. Spencer's kidneys were disconnected; they will die and dissolve eventually.
Feichter had the worst of the recovery from the surgery. The day after, while the Spencers enjoyed a pizza party in his room, she was across the hall on a morphine drip.
Spencer wanted to see her, but she wouldn't allow it. I kept him out of my room. I didn't want him to see me uncomfortable. On the third day, he came into my room. My mom propped me up and took care of my hair and makeup. I tried to look happy and healthy. My mom moved in with Judson and me for three weeks after the surgery. She didn't leave my side. She did anything and everything possible to make sure I was okay and comfortable and also whatever the family needed. She was a rock.
Today, both Feichter and her Dad are fully recovered and have no restrictions on diet or lifestyle. In February, the family enjoyed what they called a kidney cruise to the Caribbean, something that wouldn't have happened pre-surgery.
I couldn't take my wife on a vacation before because we never knew when my kidneys might shut down, Spencer said. We couldn't make any plans because we didn't know if I would be trapped in a chair with a needle in my arm.
Spencer said the bond he has with Feichter is hard to explain. She saved my life. Words can't describe how much I feel indebted to her. People who know people who need a kidney should consider donating. Be a real friend. Be a hero.
Feichter said helping Spencer helped ease the pain of losing her own father.
I think about what we went through together and it makes me cry, she said. It is one of the most amazing things I have ever done in my life. I was not able to help my dad and I no longer have him. My father-in-law is like a dad to me. I love him so much and am thankful to be a part of this family. He's hands down one of the greatest men I have ever met and I am honored to be the one who was able to help him.