A Valentine's Day gift of a different sort
ECU staff member recalls the Feb. 14 kidney transplant that gave her a new life
(Feb. 11, 2011)
June Long was with her daughter browsing Valentine's Day cards when she received the call.
A match to replace Long's failing kidneys had been found and was on its way to North Carolina. If the new kidney and Long passed the final matching criteria, she would undergo a transplant the following day, Feb. 14, 1997.
"It was very emotional," said Long, 62. "It's just overwhelming when you know something that means so much to you has cost a family so much."
The transplant surgeon on call that day at East Carolina University was Dr. Paul Cunningham, now dean of the Brody School of Medicine at ECU.
"He said, 'It's about a perfect match. We're going to the O.R.,'" Long said.
Feb. 14 isn't just Valentine's Day at the Cunningham household. It's also the Cunninghams' wedding anniversary, and that year was their 10th. "Our plans usually involve not doing a whole lot other than spend time with each other," Cunningham said. "Typically, I cook a meal."
When Cunningham told his wife, Sydney, their anniversary and Valentine's Day dinner would have to wait, her response was warm.
"She felt this was the best Valentine's Day gift we could give one another – to help somebody," Cunningham said.
Long was prepped for surgery, and the operation proceeded. After Cunningham made all the connections, the new kidney began working before his eyes.
"From a surgeon's viewpoint, it's so exciting to be able to do that and see the thing run," Cunningham said. "It's like a kid at Christmas; you put the battery in the toy and see it work."
Long, who worked at the ECU medical school in 1997 and still does, as an executive assistant, has enjoyed 14 years of normal life. She said anti-rejection medication is far better than 10 hours of dialysis each night. "I was pretty much tied to the dialysis machine," she said. "All you do is take a handful of pills, and that's so much better than being on dialysis.
"This has been a real good match," she added. "I've never had any rejection episodes. It's been a great kidney."
In addition, new anti-rejection medications have fewer side-effects and are less damaging to the kidneys and body, Cunningham said.
While the job of dean leaves no time for surgery, that's OK with Cunningham. "There's a time for everything," he said. "My job now is to support those who are doing transplants now."
More than 280 eastern North Carolinians are awaiting a kidney transplant, according to ECU experts. ECU surgeons performed 73 kidney transplants in 2010.
For more information about kidney transplants at ECU, call 252-744-2620.
June Long and Dr. Paul Cunningham talk about the kidney transplant he performed on her on Valentine's Day 14 years ago. Photos by Cliff Hollis