CHAMPAIGN — When local physician Dr. Safwat Wahba and his wife, Anna, made plans to retire last year, they were looking forward to some free time together after many years working in a medical practice.
Then, Anna was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease.
Her best treatment option would be a kidney transplant, she and her husband learned, and for a time, things were looking up.
The couple's friend, Claudia Lennhoff, offered to be Anna's kidney donor, and plans were progressing for the transplant surgery to take place in May or June, they said.
Then the Wahbas and Lennhoff had more bad news.
Earlier this month, Lennhoff, 47, of Urbana, underwent a biopsy that turned up probable papillary thyroid cancer, and now she can't be a kidney donor.
Lennhoff says she believes she'll be fine no matter what, but she was devastated about how her condition will affect her friends.
"I'm worried about them," she said. "They're worried about me."
The Wahbas, of Champaign, worked in private practice until Dr. Safwat Wahba, 70, an oncologist/hematologist, went to work for what is now Presence Covenant Medical Center, in 2007. Anna Wahba, 64, worked in her husband's offices and came to Covenant with him, along with the rest of his staff.
Lennhoff, the executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, said she first got to know Dr. Wahba attending Champaign County health board meetings when he was a board member, and then she got to know him and his wife better as she became a patient in his office.
Lennhoff recalls being in such ill health about 13 years ago, suffering from tremors and other neurological symptoms, that taking a shower or walking up a flight of stairs would leave her shaking.
"I was so exhausted, I'd park and see my building and think how was I going to make it," she said.
She'd been to several specialists, but Wahba was the one who found she needed B-12 and iron infusion treatments, she said. He'd seen her having trouble walking in a parking lot after a health board meeting, asked her what was wrong, and invited her to bring her blood work to his office.
"Because of the kindness and compassion of Dr. Wahba, I got treated and I got my life back," she says.
Lennhoff recalls emailing Wahba early this year, asking him how retired life was going, and he told her about Anna's kidney disease and their search for a donor.
She came to their home, asked them some questions, and was soon filling out a donor application, she said.
The daughter of a physician and a nurse, Lennhoff said she saw her parents plans for their own retirement evaporate when her mother became ill. Now she could see the Wahbas about to suffer the same fate.
"I just felt so much compassion," she said. "Here is another pair of people who worked hard all their lives."
Anna Wahba, a cytologist (scientist who studies cells), met her husband in a London hospital in the mid-1970s, where they were both working at the time.
They were married in 1976, had a son and a daughter, and came to Champaign-Urbana in 1985. Anna did bookkeeping and looked after lab equipment in her husband's medical office, "plus being the boss," Safwat Wahba said. Anna retired first, and her husband retired about six months later, this past October, they said.
They hoped to do some traveling, the couple said. But Anna's kidney disease turned up when she underwent some routine screening just before her husband retired.
A slender woman who takes pilates classes and shuns packaged foods for health reasons, Anna Wahba said she didn't have any symptoms of kidney problems.
Now she's fighting this disease with love and support from her family, she said.
And with Lennhoff facing a cancer diagnosis, Anna Wahba said, "we'll do anything we can for her."
The cause of Anna Wahba's chronic kidney disease is a rare one called membranous nephropathy, and in most cases the origin is unknown, said her Christie Clinic nephrologist Dr. Ismail Qattash.
"She's very healthy otherwise," he said.
The disease is unpredictable, but he projected a six-month window for her to either undergo a transplant or need to be on dialysis.
Anna's kidneys are currently at less than 10 percent function, she and her husband said.
At this stage, some patients start dialysis and some wait, Qattash said.
"If you wait, it's likely at some point you'll start feeling sick and weak and fatigued." he said. "Some people choose to start early and some people choose not to start early."
Ideally, Safwat Wahba said, his wife will be able to undergo a transplant before she has to begin dialysis, because dialysis is "not a good life."
When Lennhoff first offered to be the donor, the Wahbas said, they were overwhelmed.
"When this thing came up, this is far beyond being a patient advocate," he said of Lennhoff. "She offered herself."
With Health Care Consumers for 16 years — the last 14 years as its leader — Lennhoff said she will find out more about what she is facing with her cancer condition when she goes in for a consult May 8.
This isn't her first run-in with her thyroid, the gland in the neck that controls metabolism. She has been on medication since 2001 for an underactive thyroid condition called hypothyroidism, she said.
While she was screened in the process of becoming Anna Wahba's kidney donor, she had also undergone some tests separately in connection with a new patient physical at Carle after her former primary care doctor retired.
Lennhoff said her thyroid will likely need to be removed and she would need to have follow-up treatments with radioactive iodine.
"You need both kidneys to flush it out," she said.
Lennhoff said she is optimistic for herself. Her main concern is for Anna Wahba, and hoping someone else will step up to take her place as Anna's kidney donor.
"I feel fortunate," Lennhoff said. "Anna and I are on opposite extremes. I have an organ that needs to come out and she needs an organ that needs to come in. I don't need anyone to help me but doctors. I hope someone out there will be willing to help her."
One thing that made her decision to become a donor easier was learning the transplant procedure at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, would be done through minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery, she said.
Since she was pretty far along in the donor process, she's willing to answer questions for anyone who might be interested in becoming a donor, Lennhoff says.
"I know I'm asking a lot, but it's not something I wasn't willing to do myself," she adds.
Lennhoff compares her own cancer situation with a shark bite she once got walking in a few feet of water along the Texas Gulf Coast.
She was lucky, she recalled, because the shark chomped down on her foot leaving teeth marks, but didn't bite hard enough to draw blood.
"Hopefully this thyroid cancer is a baby, sleepy shark and I'll be just fine," she said.
Anna Wahba: email@example.com
Claudia Lennhoff: firstname.lastname@example.org
More information about living kidney donation: http://bit.ly/15EJzh8