Twin may not be able to donate kidney to sister


Posted on January 13, 2011 at 11:33 PM

Updated Monday, Jan 17 at 2:52 PM

Meg Farris / Medical Reporter

Identical twins who have shared a fun life together now find themselves in a situation where they may not be able to help each other.

One is facing a challenge that many others in this area are dealing with as well.

Imagine an identical copy of yourself, a twin who shares all the fun but never competes.

"We excelled in different sports even, never shared dates. She went out on a couple for me or stood in and stole one of my blind dates," said Lynn Watkins back in July of 1998.

"I like to play tricks. It kind of goes with the territory of being a twin," said Lois Watkins Smitherman, laughing with her twin sister back in 1998.

Watkins and Smitherman first shared their story of growing up in New Orleans as the Watkins Twins nearly 13 years ago. But back then, they also shared something else with us. At only 20 years old, in college at LSU, they got news from a doctor that they shared a genetic disorder.

"He called me in with my mom and dad to tell us the bad news, that we had lupus, said Smitherman in 1998.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease. The same system that attacks infections, germs and diseases, turns on your own body and treats it like a foreign invader, attacking healthy vital organs. It can cause chronic inflammation and pain during flare ups. Back then, doctors thought the twins only had a few years to live, but it was caught early before major organ damage.

But since last Easter, one twin has taken a hard turn. Smitherman lives in Texas with her husband and teenage children. But Watkins, still in New Orleans, has had several years of stressful setbacks. She had abdominal surgery, a serious knee injury, lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, and a relationship failure that caused the loss of her health insurance. And over time, she believes that stress caused her lupus to flare up and now it has destroyed her kidneys.

"It has been a dramatic life changing event," said Watkins.

Today at only 99 pounds and weakened, she goes to dialysis three times a week for three hours a day.

"The struggle to carry things sometimes and to go upstairs and not being able to live by myself, independently, because of the fear out of nowhere something's going to happen," said Watkins.

"You can't live alone," added Smitherman.

Dr. Stephen Morse is the Director of Clinical Nephrology (Kidney Specialist) at LSU Health Sciences Center and is also the Medical Director of the DaVita Crescent City Dialysis clinic where Watkins gets treated. He says 20 percent of people who need kidney dialysis, do not make it long-term, but if they get a kidney transplant, the odds are good.

"The outcome for people who have transplants is around four percent. Their mortality rate is around four percent or even less. So big, big difference between somebody who is on dialysis verses somebody who has received a kidney transplant," said Dr. Stephen Morse.

And that's what Watkins and her family are hoping for, a donated kidney from a family who has lost someone or a living donor, since we only need one kidney to do the job.

"For people to consider the gift and thinking of at least attempting to help others by considering donation of a kidney," said Watkins, "It would be world changing if more people would consider it," Smitherman said, finishing her sister's sentence.

And here is where nature has failed Watkins. Anyone would be so fortunate to have an exact genetic copy of herself in a loving twin sister, who would give up a kidney immediately. But being identical Smitherman has lupus too and her doctors don't believe any transplant team would take a kidney from a person who could have kidney failure in the future as well.

"That's the hardest thing for us right now, is that I really think that I could save her life quickly and I don't know that I'll be able to," Smitherman said sadly.

Watkins has gone through heart stent surgery and many many tests to see if she will even be accepted on the kidney transplant list at Tulane. She is told the panel meets Friday to review her case.

"The main concern is whether somebody's going to be strong enough to undergo the lengthy surgery that it takes. So it has to be somebody who can undergo three or four hours of surgery," explained Dr. Morse.

Dr. Morse says many studies show lupus patients make good candidates for kidney transplants and do very well. Smitherman still plans to try to be a donor.

"I would feel horrible asking anyone, being her identical twin and not at least trying, if she doesn't mind a 50-plus-year-old kidney," said Smitherman laughing with her sister. "So it's the best I can do."

Watkins' friends want to donate too.

"It's very humbling. It's humbling to have your sister, or anyone, I actually have five living donors willing to be tested which makes me very, it's so much easier to give than it is to receive. And I laugh and say, 'How do you write a thank you note for that.' I mean, what do you say to someone that, and how are you worthy enough for someone to put themselves in jeopardy for you like that," Watkins said through teary eyes.

Watkins credits University Hospital and the doctors there for saving her life last spring.

We will keep you updated on her chances of getting on the transplant list and getting a new kidney. Wakins has no other siblings who can be tested for a match.

In the meantime, if you want to be tested to be a living donor or if you want to sign a donor card for organs to be used after death, call the Tulane Transplant Institute at 504-988-5344.

LOPA-Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency: The local, federally-designated organ procurement organization which is responsible for facilitating the organ donors in Louisiana. Its educational and outreach programs have led to increased organ awareness.