CLOSE

Alex Kepner has been fighting kidney failure for over a year. He recently found a living donor!

York Daily Record

His condition is worsening and he’s in pain. A donor has been lined up. But COVID-19 concerns lead hospitals to now deem his surgery ‘elective.’

Jennifer Fink started packing months ago. She had cleaned the house, sanitized every surface — she was eager to get going to the hospital for her son’s organ transplant even if it was still weeks away.

Her 16-year-old son, Alex Kepner, lives in pain and is plagued with Stage 4 chronic kidney disease. For more than a year she sought a living donor. Finally, it seemed, something was going right.

She was counting down the days until Alex’s planned surgery: April 21 — relishing the prospect of her son getting a new kidney and finally returning to normal life after years of declining health.

Then the hospital called. With less than three weeks to go before surgeons were set to administer the kidney transplant, the coronavirus outbreak prompted them to delay the operation they now deemed elective. 

The surgery was off.

“They told me my kid needed this transplant or he could die,” Fink said, stroking her son’s arm as he sat close by. “So I don’t understand how it’s being called elective. I don’t know how I’m even supposed to feel right now.”

[ The York Daily Record’s coverage of coronavirus is being provided for free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing at ydr.com/subscribe. ]

Transplant blocked by coronavirus

Even under normal circumstances, a transplant can get derailed.

Fink knew this was a possibility. When doctors told her that Alex would receive his transplant on April 21, they did so with caution. 

“They said he would get the surgery as long as everything goes as planned,” Fink remembers. Doctors found an anonymous living donor who was a match with Alex. “This was a good thing.” 

While many organ donations might be from someone who died suddenly, perhaps in a car or after a brain aneurysm, live donors offer a better organ.

“It works right away. A living donor is a healthy kidney,” she said. “It starts to function and starts to make urine after the transplant.” It lasts longer too, she added. A kidney donated from someone who had died does not always work right away.

But as the coronavirus outbreak began spreading last month, doctors across the state canceled thousands of non-urgent surgeries so that hospitals and medical professionals could begin clearing bed space and freeing up staff to prepare for the now-growing number of COVID-19 patients.

More: Coronavirus updates: Pa. death toll tops 700 with 2,500 hospitalized; new mask requirement

Living-donor surgeries have been shut down across the country, and deceased-donor transplants are happening only when the case is urgent. It would be too risky to operate on Alex, doctors told Fink.

Right now, the 16-year-old Dallastown high school junior has more bad days than good. 

He’s been out of school for months — long before Gov. Tom Wolf closed schools for the remainder of academic year. And he lacks the energy to even navigate a trip to the bathroom. He’s lost his appetite. Leg cramps keep him up at night. Discomfort wakes him.

Alex is not on dialysis, which his mother said would make him weaker, but he’s getting dangerously close to needing that, leaving Fink to wonder: How much longer can her son wait for a transplant?

“They say a transplant is a life-changer for someone who has this condition,” Fink said. “It has made my son weak. His body hurts all the time. He’s in constant pain. It’s like…I don’t know…what if the pandemic never ends?”

‘To have that taken away from you — it’s kind of devastating’

Although some procedures, such as voluntary cosmetic surgery, can be postponed with little consequence, there are others that can only be delayed for so long.

“I was kind of nervous about the surgery before,” Alex admitted. “But now I’m worried about what waiting two more months could mean. It’s scary not knowing what’s going on.”

His new surgery date, June 2, feels tentative. But Alex and his mother are choosing to be optimistic and add the appointment to their planner anyway.

“But still, to have that taken away from you — it’s kind of devastating,” Fink said. “I just want it done. But I know it could be a long time before he has this surgery. He’s been waiting for over a year. He’s alive, and that’s the best thing I can say about all of this. But how long are we going to have to go on like this?”

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Sam Ruland is the Pennsylvania issues reporter for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network, covering all aspects of life in Pennsylvania. Contact her at [email protected], 717-654-8779 and follow her on Twitter @sam_ruland. 

Read or Share this story: https://www.ydr.com/story/news/2020/04/16/coronavirus-dallastown-teen-denied-kidney-transplant/5147267002/