ST. LOUIS – They wait behind curtains just a couple of hospital beds away from each other, a 59-year-old woman needing a kidney and a 30-year-old man donating his to her. Nurses and doctors are making all the necessary preparations for the transplant surgery.
“Are you related to the donor?” nurse Diana Walker-Seawood asks the recipient, Kasey Bergh of St. Louis.
“He’s my husband,” Bergh answers. Then a pause. “Do you want to know the story?”
The nurses and doctors within earshot in the pre-operation area at Barnes-Jewish Hospital gather closer.
“I was in Denver on a Purina work trip, and I sent a text to another Purina person,” she begins, “and it was a wrong number, and it was him; and now we’re married, and now he’s giving me a kidney.”
Everyone oohs and aahs.
Bergh sent that errant text message to Henry Glendening almost six years ago. After texting back and forth and finding uncanny things in common, they decided to meet. Three years later, in June of 2015, they got married in a small ceremony along the graffiti art-covered flood wall of the Mississippi River.
Their odd story of finding love went viral, shared across the world. She was blonde and vivacious; he was tall and handsome. Bergh said she felt like people saw them as “Ken and Barbie,” their story like a fairy tale.
Others likely scoffed at the 30-year age gap and assumed that the relationship surely wouldn’t last. But nearly four years into their marriage, their love for each other is stronger than ever.
That wrong number led Bergh to find not only love once again but also the man who saved her life with his kidney.
It also led Glendening to kick-start a successful career and relish the opportunity to help another human so remarkably.
They say it’s a bit of proof that there’s a perfect order, a higher intelligence behind what brought them together.
“Our relationship is something to be held and cherished as a true gift from the universe,” Bergh said. “You might say I helped him have a new life when we met, and now he’s helped me with a new one as well.”
While serendipitous, their marriage has been no fairy tale, they say. The age gap is not the problem. That is more of something they laugh about, like when the waiter assumes she’s his mother and hands her the check.
Like any relationship, their struggles boil down to personality differences and failing to communicate. Love takes lots of work, commitment and understanding.
“Nothing with us is really typical, but it is in a way,” Bergh said. “There were times when we were mad and hated each other. But we stuck together. It took great love and tenacity to not let go.”
Before the surgery team takes Glendening to his operating room, he says bye to Bergh, who will be wheeled to a room next to his about 30 minutes later. He hangs his bag of intravenous fluids next to hers and sits on her bed. He faces her with his right hand on her left forearm.
She’s worried. “We’re doing this thing, uh?” she says.
“Yeah,” he answers, giving her a reassuring smile.
They chat about how their stomachs feel and how they’ve heard from friends, all wishing them well. The nurse interrupts.
“OK, young man. Looks like it’s kiss-and-hug time,” Walker-Seawood says.
Bergh and Glendening kiss softly several times. She holds his gaze with her light blue eyes. “Thank you,” she says.
He tells her, “We’ll get you all better.”
Bergh has immunoglobulin A nephropathy, a condition where an antibody lodges in the kidneys and damages their ability to filter waste from the blood.
In 1995, Bergh received a kidney transplant from her sister. Kidneys donated from living donors usually last 20 years at the most, so Glendening knew early in their relationship that Bergh might need a new one. He was always willing to see if he could be the donor.
Bergh’s kidney started to fail soon after they married. For the past two years, she’s had to have dialysis three to four times a week to clean her blood and keep her alive. Bergh had other health problems, which delayed undergoing another transplant.
Last winter, she was finally healthy enough to pursue whether Glendening could be a match.
It’s unusual when a spouse is able to donate his or her kidney to another spouse because of all the factors involved, explained Dr. Jason Wellen, surgical director of the kidney transplant program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
The hospital has 790 people on its waitlist for a kidney, and they wait an average of three to four years for a transplant.
A kidney from a living donor is best. One from a deceased donor tends to last no longer than 12 years.
The Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center — one of the largest in the country — completes about 240 kidney transplants a year, and just 70 involve kidneys from living donors, Wellen said. More than half are related to the recipient.
Each year, the hospital sees about 600 people trying to donate a kidney, he says, but most are ruled out.
Many are denied because of health complications, such as too much protein in their urine or high blood pressure. “Anyone we clear for donation should have no increased risk of renal failure or death for the rest of their life,” Wellen said.
Glendening, young and healthy, passed all the tests.
Blood types also must match. Glendening is the blood type O, which is compatible with all other blood types, Wellen said.
Another problem is antibodies. Transplant recipients must not have any antibodies that can damage the donor organ. People who have been pregnant, had a blood transfusion or a previous transplant, like Bergh, create antibodies.
“Most people needing a second transplant have a lot of antibodies,” Wellen said. “So often, we have trouble finding people her immune system won’t attack.”
Doctors were surprised to find Bergh had low levels of antibodies that could attack Glendening’s kidney.
“Not only did she marry her soul mate,” Wellen said, “but she married her immunologic soul mate.”
Instead of ignoring Bergh’s errant text, Glendening helped her through her frustration of not being able to connect with her friends. They quickly learned they believed in the same quirky philosophies like the “law of attraction” — the idea that a person’s positive thoughts can “attract” a desired outcome.
By the time they met, they had already connected on an emotional level. And when Glendening placed his hands on her hips that night, their age difference became an afterthought.
Glendening’s love, Bergh says, makes her feel timeless. It helped that their friends and family were accepting. “When they met Kasey, they welcomed her with open arms,” Glendening said. “As long as we’re happy, they’re happy.”
And it helped that, after Bergh’s encouragement to network, Glendening climbed the software development ladder and now works in applications security.
“She really pushed me to follow my passion,” he said.
The morning after the transplant surgery, Bergh opens her eyes to an enormous bouquet of a dozen sunflowers sitting on a counter in her hospital room. Glendening ordered them a few days earlier so they would be there before she woke up.
“Congratulations!” the card read, as if she had won an award. “I love you, and I’m looking forward to your recovery. Love, Henry.”
The way he sees it, every healthy person who can take time off work should donate a kidney. It’s a laparoscopic surgery done with tiny incisions and just two days in the hospital. “There’s no question whether or not I would do this.” Glendening said. “If I can help her getting back to living life, I want to do that.”