CHAMPAIGN — Kidney disease arrived as a cruel surprise for Anna Wahba, but life gave her a second chance.
Now Wahba is hoping for the best for her friend Claudia Lennhoff, who was going to be Wahba's kidney donor earlier this year — and was forced to withdraw when she learned she had thyroid cancer.
When word was out about the local women's plight, no fewer than 10 people volunteered to take Lennhoff's place as Wahba's donor.
One of them — a woman who had never met Wahba, 65, of Champaign — passed the donor-screening requirements, and Wahba underwent a transplant this past August.
Lennhoff, the 47-year-old executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, faces a more uncertain health outlook.
The thyroid cancer she expected to be easily treatable turned out to be a rare and aggressive form, which, she admits, is clouding her optimism with some worry.
Still, Lennhoff says, this experience has made her consider what's most precious to her, "so there is a gift that comes with it."
The medical ordeals of Wahba and Lennhoff began to intertwine this past April.
Wahba, who was otherwise healthy when she retired in early 2012, was diagnosed with a rare form of chronic kidney disease later that year after undergoing routine health screenings.
Lennhoff already had a history of problems with her thyroid, the gland in the neck that controls metabolism. While she had undergone tests to become Wahba's donor, she found out she had thyroid cancer in separate tests done in April as part of a new patient physical.
Lennhoff had become friends with Anna Wahba and her husband, retired oncologist/hematologist Dr. Safwat Wahba, during the years Dr. Wahba practiced medicine and his wife worked in his office.
When she heard about Anna's illness and need for a kidney donor coming on the heels of the Wahbas' retirement, Lennhoff recalls, she didn't need to think long about offering one of her own kidneys.
"I think when you care for somebody and you have the thing they need, your heart responds," she says.
When she had to back out as the donor, Lennhoff turned her attention to finding Anna Wahba a new donor, sending out about 100 emails to people she knew, asking for someone to take her place. She and the Wahbas made the same appeal to the community in a story that ran in The News-Gazette on April 28.
The first response from a potential donor came around 7 a.m. April 28, Anna Wahba says. A night nurse in Danville said she had just read about the situation in the news story and would be willing to be Anna Wahba's donor, and came to the Wahbas' home the next day to fill out paperwork.
With donor requirements designed to protect the safety of both the donor and the recipient, candidate after candidate was eliminated during screenings for various health reasons and other circumstances before the eventual donor was approved.
The donor was a female attorney who volunteers for Champaign County Health Care Consumers, but didn't want to be identified publicly, Wahba and Lennhoff say.
Most of the prospective donors who contacted the Wahbas work in the medical field and know her husband, Anna Wahba says.
She recalls the tremendous worry she had about taking a kidney from the donor, and how relieved she was to find out the woman came through her part of the transplant procedure OK.
"When you are in need of an organ from another person, you feel almost guilty about it," Wahba says. "I had no choice, but the donor had a choice."
Safwat Wahba says the transplant procedure doesn't come pain-free for the donor.
"Some people really have big hearts," he says.
Lennhoff, a longtime patient advocate in the local area, was aware thyroid cancer is among the more treatable cancers, so she wasn't too concerned about herself at first.
When she underwent surgery for removal of her thyroid in June, she learned her thyroid cancer was among the fewer than 1 percent of cases that are a rare and aggressive variant called columnar cell papillary thyroid carcinoma, which comes with a poor prognosis.
Caught early, her cancer was treated with radioactive iodine — a procedure for which she had to prepare herself with a restrictive diet and no thyroid hormones.
The preparation left her so fatigued, "it literally feels like your life is slipping away from you," Lennhoff recalls.
The treatment in August at Carle included 24 hours in an isolation room with lead barriers around her, with all surfaces she came into contact with covered — telephone, faucets, mattresses, everything — Lennhoff says.
Signs outside the room warned people to stay out, and everything she brought in with her had to be destroyed when she left, she recalls.
"If you ever want to get sleep in a hospital, this is the way to do it," Lennhoff says, joking. "Nobody bothers you."
A new lens
Back to work a couple of weeks after the treatment, Lennhoff says she thinks — and prays — that her chances are good.
Tests done at the end of October indicated things were going in the right direction, she says, and she'll be going back in January for more tests.
She has regained about 75 percent of her energy, but comes home at night so tired she wants to go to bed between 8 and 8:30 p.m., she says.
Lennhoff says she hopes to be around for her family and friends for a long time. But going through this cancer and treatment has also made her all the more determined to get the uninsured enrolled in health insurance and work for justice, especially since it was her own access to health care that caught her cancer early.
"If I had waited two years, it might have been a different story," she says.
Her own experience has also given her a renewed appreciation for Champaign County Health Care Consumers and the work done by its staff and volunteers, she says.
She feels a "profound need" now to ensure the organization's strength and longevity, Lennhoff adds, and hopes the community will nurture and support it in the same way she's been nurtured and supported through her cancer.
Wahba says she's regained much of her energy in the three months that have passed and doesn't need to return to the doctor for another check-up until August.
What a contrast from a year ago: Last holiday season, she recalls, she was saying goodbye to a visiting brother and wondering if she'd still be around for another Christmas.
These days, Wahba says, she notices things around her, like the birds and trees outside, that she'd never paid much attention to before.
"It's kind of a new lens to look at life," Lennhoff says.