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I carry a part of my dad with me — in my lower right abdomen: Part I

In this first piece in a two-part series, writer Nathan Collins shares the story of his kidney transplant, using a donated kidney from his father.

Wherever I go, I will always carry a part of my dad with me. It's something no one can take away. At least not without a really sharp knife.

It's his kidney.

For a while my dad referred to it as his kidney, which tells you something about his (and my) sense of humor. We thought it was funny. But when this story began, it wasn't funny at all. I was 13 years old, and through the highest fever I've ever had, I asked my mom if I was going to die.

I don't remember asking her that or much of anything from about three weeks when I was sick and mostly in bed -- in fact I don't even remember exactly what time of year it was.

Here's what I do remember.

I was at Lost Park outside Portland, Oregon, with my brother Marcus and our friend Tom from down the street. It wasn't particularly warm or cold, but it was overcast. We were standing on top of a play structure when I felt a sharp pain in my right side. It wasn't extremely painful, but all the same something about it felt wrong. I went home, walked upstairs and got into my parents' bed, and that's it. The rest is black. I have a vague memory of a bowl of ice, a cold bath, and seeing myself in the mirror sometime later. I thought I looked like an alien.

Here's what I know from my mom and dad.

My fever spiked several times, which is why I had those cold baths. There was more pain in my side, I was shaking, I was confused and my temperature topped out at 105.2°F -- a combination of symptoms that worried my mom, a nurse who was used to treating people who were sick and dying. By the first evening she had taken me to the children's urgent care, but at that point -- for reasons that remain mysterious -- I had not developed the symptoms that would later point to what was really going on. Instead, the doctors quite reasonably thought I had a stomach bug that had been going around and sent me home with instructions to take something for the fever and sip fluids until I felt better.

A few days later, my mom and my pediatrician worked out I had a bladder infection that had spread to my kidney. This time, I was sent home with a prescription for antibiotics that I stayed on for weeks. When I finally got back to school, I had lost 10 or 12 pounds.

After I started to get better, the main concern was preventing this from happening again. A particularly unpleasant test called a voiding cystourethrogram showed that I had bladder reflux, which meant that urine was sort of splashing back into my ureters up toward my kidneys. (The fact that this had never caused a bladder infection before, or at least that I had never noticed any symptoms, was so unusual that my urologist asked if he could present my case to some colleagues. I enthusiastically agreed. I liked science. Now, I was science!)

A couple of surgeries corrected the condition and one other curious feature of my urinary tract, and then that was more or less that. I didn't forget what happened -- more precisely, I didn't forget the fear I felt or the aftermath of the illness or the fact that I was (happily) a curiosity of science -- but it was done. Behind me.

For a while.

The conclusion is available here.

Nathan Collins, PhD, is the associate director of interdisciplinary life sciences communications at Stanford. He, his dad and his dad's kidney are doing quite well.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Collins

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