By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
The kidney that July Woman of the Month Christy Felling gave her brother, Tommy Swenson, was for her the sweetest gift, and one she encourages many others to consider giving.
“It wasn’t a hard decision — it was the only decision,” she said.
Felling grew up in the small hamlet of Svea, south of Willmar. After marrying Sauk Centre native John Felling, teaching jobs serendipitously opened up in Sauk Centre for both of them at the same time, so they moved to town.
“I’m kind of a dinosaur,” Felling said. “I had one job interview after college, took the job and stayed until I retired.”
Felling is the second of six siblings. The fourth, Tommy, was diagnosed with diabetes as a child. A kidney was donated by their brother, John, about 20 years ago.
By 2011, Tommy had lost most of his eyesight and the transplanted kidney was failing after being damaged over the years by diabetes-related high blood pressure.
“The doctor told Tommy that he needed a kidney transplant again,” Felling said. “When Tommy came back to him with a donor just a week later, the doctor was surprised.”
At the time of the first transplant, all of the Swen-
son siblings were tested. John was found to be a perfect match, while the others were “OK” matches.
The second time around, Felling and her sister, Charlene, discussed who would donate.
“I was too overweight to be a donor at that time,” Felling said. “It frustrated me to no end. I started losing weight, but it was not coming off fast enough.”
Felling turned to a diet using MediFast, and for her that was the answer.
“I started two years ago, and lost 50 pounds in three months,” she said. “I’ve now lost a total of 65 pounds.”
The sisters had many factors to consider, but they decided that Felling would be the one to donate, which her successful weight loss made possible.
The transplant took place in December 2011 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Felling had a 3-inch incision above her belly button and three small holes. Years earlier, John had endured a huge C-shaped incision from his back around to the front of his abdomen and had to take six weeks off work to recover.
“He made a much greater sacrifice,” Felling said.
About 18 months after his second transplant, in May 2013, Tommy underwent minor skin cancer surgery on his scalp.
“He’d had numerous similar procedures in the past,” said Felling. “This one was a bit deeper on his scalp.”
Tommy woke up somewhat disoriented and was having trouble communicating. He was transferred to the intensive care unit for monitoring, but suffered a massive stroke that night.
“After a meeting with all his health care workers, his two daughters and our siblings, we agreed that he should receive ‘comfort care’ only,” Felling said. “It was a hard decision to accept — a hard thing to let him go.”
But the 18 months of life that Felling’s kidney gave her brother were precious to his family. His grandsons were five and three when he died and will now be able to remember him.
“We had him a lot long-er than we had any right to, with all that was wrong with him,” said Felling.
Because of her experiences with transplantation, Felling is a strong proponent of organ donation.
“It’s so easy to do — you can choose to be a donor when you renew your driver’s license,” she said. “But tell your family and friends that you are a donor so they are aware of it if something happens.”
Felling pointed out that in some countries, a person is considered to be a donor unless they deliberately choose not to be.
“People say I’m so brave, but I tell them I’m not,” said Felling. “I would have done it if it just gave him a day. What would you do to keep your family member alive?”
Felling was nominated to be Woman of the Month not only for the sacrificial gift she gave her brother, but for what she does to promote Sauk Centre.
“We love Sauk Centre,” Felling said. “We enjoy finding homes for new people in town (through Main Street Real Estate) and telling them about what’s good about our community and why it’s a good place to live.”
Felling is so satisfied to be a part of this community that she has recruited new residents as well.
“I brought two of my siblings and my parents to live in town,” she said.
People interested in finding out more about organ donation can call the University of Minnesota Transplant Center at (612) 273-3000.
“You can give a kidney to anyone,” Felling said.