Wing walker Teresa Stokes and her business partner and boyfriend, air show pilot Gene Soucy, share more than the love of aviation. They also share a kidney.
In 2003 Stokes donated one of her kidneys to Soucy, who was living with a progressive kidney disease. They now tout organ donation during their performances at air shows around the country. When the two are not performing, he’s a pilot for Northwest Airlines and she’s an artist.
The couple had known about Soucy’s illness for years, Stokes says. “But he was still healthy enough to get a first class medical certificate. His doctor said he had the slowest progressing kidney disease he’d ever seen because he wasn’t showing symptoms of the illness.”
Early in 2003 that changed. The athletic Soucy, then 54, noticed a drop in his energy level. “I felt tired all the time,” he says. “I couldn’t even cross the street without getting tired. I thought I was just getting old.”
He started getting lots of blood tests, which check for contaminant levels in the blood stream that in a healthy body the kidneys filter out. One day the doctor told Soucy he had to start thinking about dialysis or a transplant.
He weighed his options carefully. He knew if he went on dialysis he would not be able to keep his job as an airline pilot because of the time commitment.
“Dialysis requires a four-hour commitment every other day so you can’t travel,” he explains. “I got so sick I had it once and I hated it. I also figured I’d never be able to fly in an air show again if I went on it. The only other option was a transplant.”
Years ago a transplant would have also kept Soucy out of the air, not because of the procedure but because of the anti-rejection drugs.
“They were steroids and they had side effects that could keep you from flying,” Soucy says. “The ones they use today are different and don’t have those side effects.”
The next step was to find a donor. There are lists people are placed on to get a kidney from someone who has been killed in an accident or died prematurely, but the wait can be months or even years — and finding a match can be difficult. “On top of that I have a rare blood type, A-positive, which can make finding a donor tough,” says Soucy.
Stokes immediately volunteered one of her kidneys. It wasn’t a surprise or a knee-jerk reaction, she notes.
“The doctors told him many years ago he would need a transplant,” she says. “And when I got to know Gene I told him ‘if you ever need a kidney you can have one of mine.’ It never occurred to me it wouldn’t work or that it wouldn’t match.”
The next challenge was persuading the doctor to accept Stokes’ offer.
“They try to go to the family first,” she says. “They tested his brother and his sister to see if they were good matches, but they both had health issues. If you have even the tiniest flaw in your health it rules you out.”
The testing is intense, she adds.
“I had my heart, all internal organs, my blood and my urine tested,” she says. “They stuck a lot of needles into me and did an MRI on my kidneys. It has to be intense because they don’t want to put anyone into jeopardy.”
Stokes also went online to research the procedure.
“I kept hearing horror stories about donors who were in the hospital two or three times longer than recipients,” she explains. “I was nervous when I read that they make a 10- to 12-inch incision through your back and saw out a rib to take the kidney out. So I started looking for a hospital that had the most experience in this kind of thing and did the best job. That’s when I found out about laparoscopic kidney removal. With laparoscopic they just make a tiny incision. I want to tell everyone that is the way to go.”
The next challenge was finding a hospital. They wanted to stay close to home in Houston, but doctors at the local hospital did not do the laparoscopic procedure.
Through the Internet she discovered that the procedure was developed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., then improved at the University of Maryland Hospital, also in Baltimore.
“We decided that the University of Maryland Hospital was the place to go,” she says.
The couple moved to Baltimore for four months to prepare for the operation. Much of that time was spent getting educated. They learned about the procedure and the modern antirejection drugs and their side effects.
“He’ll have to take them forever so his body doesn’t reject the kidney, but they have the best success rate and, of course, they are not steroids so he can still fly,” she says.
They also consulted an aviation medical examiner so they knew what hoops Soucy would have to jump through to get his medical certificate back.
“We had the paperwork in order,” Soucy recalls.
On May 7, 2003, they underwent the procedure.
They were kept in separate operating bays. Stokes’ kidney was removed, then placed in Soucy.
“It was outside of my body and his body for all of 20 minutes,” she says. “They leave the old kidneys in but reroute everything like you do with plumbing.”
Her fears about a big incision and massive body trauma were thwarted by the laparoscopic procedure.
“I have a two inch scar below my bikini line where they pulled the kidney out,” she says. “They closed the incision with this stuff like Crazy Glue.”
She was walking the day after the procedure. Soucy’s surgery went just as easily. They both left the hospital in under a week.
The healing, they both note, was quick.
“We were jogging again within two months,” Soucy says. “And I got my medical certificate back in six months.”
There are a few lifestyle changes, such as taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. He also has to be careful about catching a cold because one of the drugs’ side effects is that they decrease the effectiveness of the immune system.
“I have to be careful about germ exposure,” he says. “I can’t catch a cold because it will go directly to pneumonia.”
He soon went back to his job at the airline. A few months later, the couple was back on the air show circuit.
“You’d never know anything is different,” Stokes says. “I certainly don’t feel any different. The kidney is about the size of your fist – I only lost one pound out of this deal!” she jokes.
Soucy, on the other hand, gained an abundance of energy. “I feel like I am 25 again,” he notes.
Both have become strong advocates of organ donation and make a point of educating people on the issue, including a public service announcement during their act.
“Make sure your family knows your wishes,” Stokes advises. “Fill out that part on your driver’s license. They say that one person can impact up to 69 lives now with organ donation.”