For some, when a family member needs something, there’s no doubt that the right thing to do is step up and give.
That was the case with two members of the legal community. Bose McKinney & Evans attorney Ron Elberger’s son Seth Elberger, now 33, gave him a kidney this summer, and 16 years ago, Justice Steven David gave a kidney to his 21-year-old niece. In both situations, the giver said there wasn’t much of a decision to make – it was just the right thing to do.
Ron realized he had kidney disease when he was traveling to Duluth, Minn., where his client, Aron Ralston, was going to speak and participate in an athletic tournament. Ron has represented Ralston since shortly after the hiker was forced to cut off his own arm after being trapped under a boulder in May 2003. Ron’s representation included a book and movie deal.
It was en route to that speaking engagement in September 2003 that Ron noticed something wasn’t right. Because he had an ileostomy in August 1980 – following the removal of his colon, large intestine, and part of his small intestine – the attorney was used to drinking a lot of water. But on that trip, he noticed he wasn’t drinking as much water and he had a fever.
When Ron landed in Minneapolis, he called his brother-in-law who happened to be a physician in Duluth and explained his symptoms. His brother-in-law suggested he go to the emergency room and the next day, after various tests, it was clear his kidneys had shut down.
He said at that point it wasn’t a question of if, but when, his kidneys would fail him again. He tried a number of therapies and IV hydration. In September 2009, Ron and his wife started attending classes about managing chronic kidney disease, including what was required for a transplant.
On Dec. 29, 2009, Ron was back in the emergency room for tests. Shortly thereafter, he started dialysis.
The first type of dialysis he underwent required him to have treatments three times a week at 4.5 hours per session. It left him tired and unable to work at the level he was used to.
“That was unacceptable,” he said.
When he asked around, he discovered another kind of dialysis that required six days of treatment per week, but each was only two hours and three minutes, which left more flexibility. His wife learned how to administer the treatment, called NxStage. After completing the training, they were able to have a machine at their home, making it even more convenient.
“We did it with extreme trepidation and a lot of humor,” Ron said.
Around that same time, Ron said, “I was told it would be a good idea to let people line up to be a transplant donor. … I told my family first and put out a notice to my law firm.”
About two dozen people volunteered, and at one point Methodist Hospital, which would do the procedure, told Ron to tell people to stop calling.
“I didn’t know how many people had called. … The response was overwhelming and humbling,” he said.
Seth and a partner at the firm were the number one and number two matches, respectively. Ron added that his daughter, Becca Elberger Brown, wasn’t eligible to donate because she might have more children.
“For the most part, it was pretty cut and dry,” Seth said. “He’s family. That’s why I volunteered. When I found out I was eligible to donate and a match, I was pretty happy about it.”
Because he lives about 530 miles away in Marietta, Ga., Seth said when it comes to his father’s medical issues, “it’s easier to be in the dark than in the know so I’m not worrying for no good reason. … When he had kidney failure originally, I knew he’d need a kidney some day, but I wasn’t sure when. It was never a question of whether this was something I would do or not do, it was just a matter of waiting and seeing when I would need to get tested.”
On July 13, the transplant took place, and Ron and Seth were in the hospital for about a week. Ron said he felt better almost immediately after the surgery, while Seth said it has taken him some time to fully recover.
While everything went well during the surgery, Ron said he has had a few occasions where he needed to return to the hospital. His body was rejecting the kidney, and he required additional treatment. But things have been going well following those treatments.
As for work, Ron said he didn’t do any the first three weeks out of the hospital, but he began working from home in July, August, and the first part of September. He returned to the office the third week of September, and he said his workload as of late October was about 80 percent of what it was pre-transplant.
Ron said that his firm and clients have been extremely supportive through the entire process. In many cases, his clients waited for his recovery, and if they couldn’t wait, someone else from the firm temporarily took them on. If there wasn’t someone at the firm with Ron’s expertise, he referred the client to another firm that could help.
But when he is in the office – or any public place – he still needs to be careful. As part of his treatment, he is on immunosuppressant drugs, which make him more susceptible to disease.
The Indianapolis lawyer is not allowed to travel by airplane for at least the first six months after the transplant, but said he was happy that in his place, associate Megan Mulford was able to attend the London premiere of “127 Hours,” the film about Ralston’s ordeal. Mulford assisted Ron on the book and movie deals.
Seth continues to recover and said he expects to be back to normal in the next few months. He said he didn’t feel any lighter or any different than before the surgery, except he will notice the scar from time to time.
Justice David’s experience as a donor was similar to Seth’s.
“From my perspective and my family’s perspective, it was a no-brainer,” he said.
His experience with kidney disease had been with his brother-in-law, who needed dialysis and ultimately received a kidney donation. So when his niece needed a kidney because she also had kidney disease, and because Justice David was in good health, “we started an amazingly complex yet simple process, which included multiple steps and tests.”
He added the results of his tests were confidential and he received the results when he was by himself in case he decided to change his mind, “something that hadn’t occurred to me,” he added.
Following the surgery, everyone recovered well. However, “I went back to work too soon. … It was just a little bigger deal than I thought. I thought I’d bounce back quicker,” he said. As a result, he had a few complications but said ultimately it wasn’t a big deal.
“I hope people will find strength in themselves to consider being an organ donor while still alive, or at least at death, so that life can be shared,” he said. “I just wish more people would donate blood, platelets, bone marrow … it’s amazing what we can do to save lives.”•