April 19, 2004

Donating a life          

By Eric Rangus

On Saturday, Feb. 26, 1994, at about 8:30 a.m., Curt Stauffer got a call.

"How are you feeling today?" the woman asked.

"So so," was the reply. Stauffer, however, was understating the case. The day before, he had asked to be relieved of his supervisory duties with the Information Technology Division (ITD). He had been in charge of financial applications programming for several years. He couldn't handle the responsibility anymore.

Soon, he would be starting dialysis on his failing kidney. Six months earlier he had been added to the transplant list. A 1982 physical, when Stauffer was 26, found that his kidney was bad (he was born with just one) and that he eventually would need either a transplant or dialysis. Stauffer's was a gradual decline that became rapid in 1992. He was depressed; he had lost 20 pounds and most of his energy.

"I was in denial, definitely, for a long time,' said Stauffer, applications developer/analyst IV with ITD. "I was 26--I couldn't have a life-threatening illness. But as you feel worse, you come to terms with it."

Stauffer was sick, and he knew it.

What Stauffer didn't know was code spoken by the woman on the phone, who was calling from Emory Hospital. We may have a kidney for you.

She said that out loud soon enough. "We'll know in about half an hour," she added.

"All of a sudden you have these conflicting emotions," Stauffer said. "I'm excited, but, boy, this is going to be a big deal because I'm going to get operated on."

Thirty minutes later, the woman called back and asked, "When could you come in?"

"When do you want me?" was Stauffer's reply.

He had the operation at Emory Hospital that afternoon. His surgeon was Christian Larsen, who became founding director of the Emory Transplant Center in 2000. The center now averages about 150 kidney transplants a year.

Six months on a kidney transplant list is an abnormally short time. Stauffer was moved up because his donor's kidney was a "perfect match" for Stauffer's tissue type. The donor was from Cincinnati, and the kidney was flown to Atlanta that day. The match must have been perfect, because the kidney began functioning immediately after transplant.

Stauffer spent 24 hours in intensive care--far below average--and was out of the hospital in less than a week (six days and 23 hours to be exact), which was then a record recovery at Emory Hospital. In eight weeks, Stauffer was back at work (he had been telecommuting before that). When his office moved from Executive Park to its current home in the North Decatur Building in January 1995, he did all his own lifting.

Ten years later, now 47, Stauffer is in excellent health. He has one fully functioning, transplanted kidney--his other, damaged kidney will never recover--and he suffers no ill effects from the operation.

"There are so many misconceptions about transplants," Stauffer said. "Like the emergency room staff won't treat you because they want your organs; they have nothing to do with it. Then there are stories about waking up in a bathtub of ice. That doesn't happen here in the U.S. Some people think you may be disabled for the rest of your life if you get a transplant. No way. There is nothing I want to do that I can't do. That's a blessing."

Stauffer has to watch his health, of course. He has to be careful around people who are sick. He doesn't work in the garden much anymore because of bacteria, but he still changes out the kitty litter.

For the rest of Stauffer's life he will have to take medication (he proudly proclaims he has missed just three doses in 10 years), although the amount is one-third to one-fourth what it was immediately after surgery.

"The thing about a person managing a transplant is you really have to be an advocate for your own health care," Stauffer said. "Your doctor may not necessarily know the implications of everything. It just depends." For instance, Stauffer had shoulder surgery last year, and he had to be careful about which anesthesia was used become some affect kidneys.

Stauffer visits the transplant center once a year and has blood work three times a year. While he can't give blood, he donates platelets and plasma for cancer patients. "At least I can give back a little bit," he said.

Stauffer has given back in other ways, too. He has participated in several post-surgery research studies and has volunteered as both a mentor for transplant patients and as a speaker at health fairs.

April, in fact, was designated as National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Month by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. Emory will be holding a reception for transplant recipients on Friday, April 23, and the following week will set up tables across campus distributing information about transplantation and organ donation. Stauffer said work would dictate whether he participates, although he wants to.

Stauffer's relationship with Emory goes far beyond medicine and even employment. A native of Indiana who grew up in Florida, Stauffer first came to the University 30 years ago as a freshman. In 1978 he graduated with a bachelor's in chemistry; before that, as a student, he'd started working part-time as a programmer in what was then known as the Emory University Computing Center. His advisor's son worked there, and the two became acquainted because of a mutual interest in computers.

While working at the computer center, Stauffer entered graduate school at Emory, seeking a master's in math and computer science. He finished his coursework in 1980 and was on track for his degree, but real life intervened. He got married and started a family. "That was more important to me than the degree," he said. Stauffer celebrated his 21st wedding anniversary with wife Nancy last year; they have two children and two grandchildren.

After joining Emory full time, Stauffer worked his way up the ladder from programmer to programmer/analyst and now business analyst. Although he gave up supervisory responsibilities when he got sick, Stauffer has them back once again. He is in charge of the operation of the University's financial applications. He was the technical lead and consultant on ITD's Year 2000 project, upgrading all the mainframe systems and preparing them for Y2K. In 2000, he was honored with an Award of Distinction. His nomination letter mentioned, among other things, his determination while struggling with his sickness.

Stauffer never has attempted to contact the family of his kidney donor. If he were to, the letter would have to be routed through Emory Hospital and LifeLink, who would make sure to leave out personal information to protect the privacy of all parties. Some donor families avoid contact with recipients because of the painful reminders; others welcome it as a form of closure.

Still, it's something Stauffer thinks about frequently. "It's such a huge gift for a family, and at a time when their loved one is brain dead," he said. "They have to make a decision to donate or not."

While Stauffer hasn't been able to express his thoughts, he knows what he wants to say. "I couldn't do a lot of things before, but now I can play with my grandchildren," he said. "After I had the transplant both my kids grew up. Without the transplant, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy them. I might not even have been here."