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My dad gave me life -- twice

When Type 1 diabetes left Karin Hehenberger in need of a kidney transplant, her dad, Michael, said, "Let's do it next week"

Story highlights

  • Karin Hehenberger: Celebrating Father's Day isn't enough to thank her dad for saving her life
  • With Type 1 diabetes, she needed kidney transplant; her dad said, "Let's do it next week"
  • The transplant success inspired her to start a site helping those with chronic ailments connect
  • She says many don't have option she did; she thanks her dad by living a good, healthy life

Each Father's Day, I thank my father for giving me life -- twice -- the first time in the traditional sense and the second when he donated his kidney to me. When I speak about getting him a Father's Day gift, he says the best gift I can give him is to live a good, healthy life.

Five years ago, we were in the OR, side by side as one of his kidneys was transferred into my body, saving my life. I had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes the summer I turned 17, and now, 20 years later, my kidneys were so damaged from the ups and downs of sugar in my blood that my medical team told me I needed either to get on dialysis or to receive a new organ from a deceased donor or a living relative.

To my father, the choice was simple -- he said, "Let's do it next week."

Karin Hehenberger

I marveled at his ability to make a quick decision that would alter both of our bodies forever.

During the pre-operation testing period, we spent a lot of time together. We kept our spirits high and our minds off the possibility of a failure or a postponement (if one of us got sick, for instance, or if my kidneys got worse and I needed dialysis) by making plans for the future -- all the things we wanted to do individually and apart.

Before he knew of my condition, my father, 63, had made plans to climb to Mount Everest's base camp with close friends, and it was scheduled for about two months after surgery. I was worried about the short recovery time, but he kept his sights on this adventure of a lifetime in addition to my regaining my health.

As a debt of gratitude to my dad (who finished his Mount Everest trek in good health), I created my new company, Lyfebulb, an organization that aims to connect and help people with chronic disease and inspire them to lead better lives. The ultimate goal is curing people of diabetes, kidney disease and other chronic illnesses, but while scientists in academia and industry fight that battle, I wanted to create a place both online and offline, for people to enjoy the small pleasures in life, share their stories, learn about new treatments and medications, and find resources.

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Many people are not as fortunate as I was. As noted in the 2013 U.S. Renal Data System, about 34% of patients with diabetes survive five years after initiation of hemodialysis and 10% were alive after 10 years. Waiting for an organ on the regular transplant list may take years. Those years are tough ones, and when the organ finally arrives, it may be too late.

I believe that many more people would do what my father did for me if they knew more about the transplant process and outcomes. Improving access to organs is crucial now that the rate of diabetes is exploding and the average age of people living is increasing. We will be faced with many individuals needing an organ who may not have someone to ask who is educated about the risks, healthy enough to be approved and willing to step up to the plate.

Since the transplant, my father and I have celebrated holidays, gone skiing, enjoyed wine, argued and laughed -- essentially behaved like a normal father and daughter -- with the exception that we share his original pair of kidneys. Every day I remind myself what a precious gift my father has given me. I am alive today thanks to my father, and I hope to make him proud.

One day a year isn't enough to celebrate and thank my father for all he has done for me. To show my appreciation, the best gift I will give my dad this Father's Day is to take care of my health and to live each day to its fullest. It's the gift I've been giving him each year since we were in the OR side by side. And I plan on giving that gift to him for many Father's Days to come.

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