OSKALOOSA—Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for happiness, and Ryan Parker and his family know a lot about gratitude.
For the past two and a half years, Parker has been struggling with illness related to a failing kidney. He had successful kidney replacement surgery on January 9, and he has had a very successful recovery period since then.
We sat down with Parker and his donor recently to allow them to reflect and share some of their thoughts about this journey.
“When the doctors first discovered a problem I was hospitalized for five days to try to control my blood pressure and other levels in my system,” said Parker. He continued to go to doctors in Iowa City until December of 2018 when he was first told he would need a kidney transplant.
His organ donor, Dusty Bollinger, happens to be a close friend of the family.
“Ryan’s wife, Renee, and I were William Penn sorority sisters back in our college days,” said Bollinger.
Their friendship endured through the years, and when Renee sent out an announcement to the sorority sisters last summer to describe how Ryan was doing with the condition, Bollinger decided to start the process of seeing if she could be a compatible donor.
Physicians put Bollinger through a rigorous battery of tests before she was declared a good match.
“It was four to six months of blood typing, tissue typing, X-rays, MRIs, EKGs, and family background checks,” Bollinger said. “It was a little easier for me personally to complete the medical testing because I work at the hospital and I could do a limited amount of testing there, even though the majority of the testing was done at the university hospital.”
Parker had cousins in Lousianna and Des Moines who were both able to do a fair amount of testing at their local hospitals.
The primary goal was to find the kidney that was the most compatible and the least likely for Parker’s body to reject. And although it’s almost always better to find a donor within your own family, both of Parker’s parents had underlying health conditions that prevented them from being good matches.
The physicians notified Bollinger before they notified Parker that they had decided on her as the donor. They also reminded her throughout the whole process that she could reserve the right to back out and reconsider her decision, even right up until the scheduled day of the transplant operation. Bollinger never reconsidered.
Bollinger chose to go notify Parker in person, instead of having the doctors deliver the news directly. And together, both Parker and Bollinger decided to give the news to their respective children together as a group. Bollinger’s children are Dane (10) and Nolan (7), and Parker’s children are Haylee (11), Taylen (8), and Brady (5).
The children’s fifth-grade homeroom teacher, Miss Hintz, also got involved and helped the kids do some research on kidney transplant procedures, so they could learn more about what was happening.
Once the decision was made, Parker and Bollinger had two separate sets of transplant physicians, known as “transplant teams”, attending to them individually throughout the entire process. They even had two different surgeons performing their respective operations during the transplant, even as they collaborated during each separate procedure.
Parker talked about how he had the utmost confidence in his transplant team of physicians.
“Even though I was in surgery for five or six hours, I felt confident because they’ve done so many transplants and it wasn’t like an exploratory procedure where there is much more uncertainty.”
The surgeons actually started with Bollinger first, to make sure her donor kidney was fully viable. Parker’s surgery commenced only after that determination was made.
The other compatible prospective donors were asked to complete their testing, just in case Parker might experience a rejection somewhere down the road.
“The doctors call that ‘the hopper’ and it allows them to track the next best matches even years down the road,” said Parker.
Parker maintains visits to his physicians twice a week to track his progress and evaluate his recovery.
Both Parker and Bollinger have found that the more people they share their experience with, the more often they hear others sharing back their own similar personal experiences.
“Right after we announced it my wife and I ran into at least 15 people who shared that a close family member had gone through it or was going through the same thing,” Parker said. “That was a big encouragement and a big help for me.”
Along the way, the Parker family has even been able to have some fun with the experience. One of Parker’s children named the donor kidney “Rusty,” a combination of “Ryan” and “Dusty.”
His doctors have explained to Parker, the head coach for the Oskaloosa Indians varsity basketball team, that he could expect to return to coaching within 6-12 weeks, and he expects to know more at about the eight-week mark.
Parker points to the gratitude of people as the overwhelming catalyst for him and his family. He and Dusty have experienced so many gestures of gratitude, even from all across the state, that have made the recovery process go so much smoother.
And now, Bollinger and Parker want to encourage others to explore their opportunities to donate. The message they have for others is "Please consider donating to others” — and it’s a message that is hard for them to emphasize with words, but it is more a by-product of the gratitude they feel from the opportunity to help another person or the privilege of receiving that help.
It has been said that no one who achieves success does so without the help of others, and probably nobody understands that better than Ryan Parker and Dusty Bollinger.