Professional hockey cost retired North Star Pat Micheletti a knee and a hip. But it was the ibuprofen he took daily to manage aches and pains that nearly cost him his life.
At age 50, Micheletti was diagnosed with kidney failure that was likely triggered by daily use of the over-the-counter medicine. A kidney transplant in 2015 saved his life.
“I am lucky to be alive,” said the former Gophers star, now a radio broadcaster and TV hockey analyst.
That’s because it’s harder than ever to find kidney donors, whether living or deceased. About 108,000 people are listed on the national kidney transplant waiting list, yet only about 18,000 people received a kidney transplant last year and 4,745 died while waiting, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, affiliated with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The kidney waitlist “has the highest number of people on it and it has the longest wait times,” said Dr. Patrick Dean, the Mayo Clinic transplant surgeon who treated Micheletti. “In Minnesota, the wait time is three to five years for a deceased donor.”
Now Micheletti is drumming up support for the cause, including the 11th Annual Twin Cities Kidney Walk on Saturday in Eagan. With proceeds going to the National Kidney Foundation, the walk is a chance to donate dollars and spread the word about organ donation.
Nearly 80 percent of the $35 million that the national nonprofit spent last year went to research, patient services, and public and professional education.
“Kidney disease is a silent disease. When you look at someone with kidney disease, you often don’t know they are sick,” said Jennifer Lauerman, executive director of the National Kidney Foundation office in Minnesota. “That’s why we have an issue with awareness. We are going to do a better job of getting the message out and telling these stories.”
Getting a kidney from a live donor offers the best long-term odds of survival. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the University of Minnesota is researching donors living with one kidney in an effort to promote live donation.
“We are doing truly long-term follow-up of kidney donors,” said Dr. Arthur Matas, a transplant surgeon and professor in the Department of Surgery at the U. “We tell donors they can live normally with one kidney, and now we want to prove it.”
A kidney from an average living donor lasts about 14 years, while a kidney from an average deceased donor lasts around nine years, Dean said.
But the number of live kidney donations in the U.S. has declined in the past decade, from 6,647 in 2004 to 5,628 last year. No one knows the reason for sure, Matas said, but one theory is the cost to donors.
Medical costs are covered by the recipient’s insurance, but the prospect of missing weeks of work and travel expenses could act as a deterrent for prospective donors.
In 1999, the U created a way for a person to donate a kidney to a stranger. Since then, there have been more than 100 of so-called “nondirected donations.” Kris Oien of Eagan is one such donor.
Initially Oien tried to donate to her mother-in-law, who suffered from genetic kidney failure, but she wasn’t a match. Oien then went on a donor list where she would give her kidney to a stranger and, in return, her mother-in-law would get a stranger’s kidney. But her mother-in-law became too ill to undergo a transplant.
Oien decided to go ahead and donate a kidney to a stranger anyway; her husband had kidney problems and she felt like paying it forward. But her three children were skeptical.
“They thought I was nuts. A lot of people did. My parents asked: Why risk your life to help a stranger?” Oien said. “Since then they think it’s a pretty great thing.”
Oien, who serves meals to seniors at an assisted-living facility, took on a second job as a wedding server to make sure she could pay the bills while she missed work. Some of her co-workers gave her their vacation time.
Oien met the man who received her kidney six months after the procedure. He’s a father and a truck driver from Duluth. They exchange Christmas cards.
“I would 100 percent recommend it to anyone who is thinking about it,” she said. “It’s the best gift I have ever given.”
Doctors told Micheletti in 2014 that he needed a new kidney, most likely because of his ibuprofen use. He got a kidney from his brother, sparing him a years-long wait.
“My first thought was: You are kidding me,” Micheletti said. “I was shocked. I just had no indication. That’s why I get involved now — to help other athletes understand.”
He said he started taking ibuprofen regularly during his hockey seasons at the U and continued the practice into his pro career. Long-term ibuprofen usage is linked to kidney failure, although it’s unclear if it causes the problem or makes an underlying issue worse.
Micheletti’s case can spur conversations, Dean said.
“The main message is, there is not an organ shortage. There would be plenty if more people donated,” he said.