Eric Swanson waited for his wife Heather Graeme at the VA hospital where he was being seen for high blood pressure. After an unrelated Urgent Care visit out of town, he was advised to have his blood pressure checked by his hometown physician, as it seemed the medication he was previously prescribed was no longer adequate. When Heather entered the room, Eric’s eyes uncharacteristically welled with tears when he saw her. He immediately blurted out, “I have PKD.” At that time, she didn’t know what it was, or how it would change their lives forever. PKD is short for polycystic kidney disease.

There had been no obvious symptoms of kidney trouble, though sometimes Heather wondered why Eric spent the weekend laying on the couch, too lethargic to join her in some outdoor activity. It was 2015, and Heather’s mom, who had been living with them, had passed away about a year before. Heather had grieved inwardly, and self-admittedly indulged in too much food and drink attempting to numb the pain. Her spirits were low, but now with the new-found knowledge that her husband needed her, she knew she needed to steel herself and become the support Eric needed to make it through. Surely, he would beat the disease. She never thought otherwise, though the facts forced her to recognize that his life would be impacted, and that distant time known as ‘old age’ may not be as long for him.

A sunset wedding for Heather and Eric on
the beach in Fort Desoto, October 2007

Eric, the love of her life, had come to her attention in 1997, while he worked on a boat in the marina where she lived aboard her recently purchased sail boat. Heather had returned to her hometown of Jacksonville, FL after spending a year backpacking the world with her best friend. The dream of so many dreamers had been realized by this vibrant young woman, who hit the road after graduating with a master’s degree in Greek Architecture from Colorado University. She and her friend traveled to London, backpacked to Greece, and from there made their way to Australia, New Zealand, and then on to Fiji before returning home.

Eric, the handsome marine repairman who caught her eye, had recently left the Navy and was working on his divorce attorney’s boat to pay the legal fees. Smitten, Heather soon made her attraction known at a mutually frequented watering hole, and ten years later they were married on the beach in Fort DeSoto Park on the 10th anniversary of their first date.

As the years passed, their marriage survived and thrived through the test of time with typical highs and lows. Then, when the diagnosis of polycystic kidney disease threatened Eric’s longevity, they developed a level of understanding and team-togetherness that few couples share. It is a test of fortitude not to be wished for, though the rewards it brings are deep and lasting.

Theirs is a partnership made stronger by their differences, he the pessimist, she the optimist. Heather embraced the concept of a worldwide energy as part of a higher power, and Eric, a man who works with his hands, recognized the more tangible in life. Now, in the hour of their greatest challenge, they embarked on a new chapter.

PKD is a heinous, debilitating, deadly disease. The kidneys are designed to filter our blood. The tissues work like a pair of strainers, except when they become covered with cysts. Eric’s disease progressed over time, leaving him with zero energy, headaches, pain, and nausea. It sounds like a bad hangover without the fun of getting drunk. His diet became very restricted with limits on intake of protein (no red meat; especially his favorite, a good steak), along with potassium, phosphorus and sodium.

Heather became an expert in helping Eric manage his disease, though the progression continued. His eGFR – a measure of kidney filtration efficiency – continued to fall. The strain of his diseased kidneys stressed his heart, further increasing Eric’s high blood pressure, which required a complex prescription cocktail to contain. Nothing could stop the ill-effects of PKD that ravaged Eric’s body, and eventually, according to Heather, “There were no good days.” In October of 2019, Eric’s kidney function had fallen to a level of dysfunction that put him in a critical position of needing either dialysis several times a week, or a new kidney.

Heather Graeme up and around after her
heroic surgery

To put it bluntly, kidney donation can be from a live donor or a cadaver donor. Live donors are preferred and provide for more successful outcomes, less complications, and increased longevity. Our bodies are amazing in that we can function just fine with one healthy kidney. Donating a kidney can save a life, and for a healthy donor, the recovery is usually fast, lasting only several weeks to a month. Kidney donation and receipt are orchestrated through a ‘list’ process managed by the US Department of Health and Human Services Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. The harsh reality is that it takes years for recipients to get their turn and thousands die annually waiting for a donor match.

As a veteran of the Navy, Eric received medical care from the VA hospital system. In order to be considered for a transplant, Eric had to be thoroughly examined, tested, scanned, and otherwise qualified. “The VA was the biggest blessing in all of this,” related Heather. Going to the hospital for the battery of tests was a strange affair, it was early 2020 and COVID had cleared the halls. There was no waiting, there were no lines, just an eerie quiet shared by only those who were receiving or administering what is considered ‘medically necessary’ treatment.

After attending a kidney transplant seminar, Heather got to thinking. Perhaps there was another way she could help her husband. She volunteered to be tested to determine if she was a donor match. In June 2020, at age 51, Heather was told she was a match and could be her husband’s donor!

The next hurdle to giving her husband the gift of life was to qualify medically. After many tests and meditation visualizing the mutual good health Heather just knew they could enjoy, she was approved. Heather would be able to give her husband one of her kidneys. The two cried tears of joy at their good fortune. Heather felt waves of relief and a nervous anticipation. She could save her husband; this was actually going to happen.

Infections of the COVID-19 virus raged around them, and the surgery was delayed, target-date after target-date pushed, while Eric suffered. Then, in January 2021, Eric tested positive for COVID. Heather tested positive as well, though thankfully the effects were not catastrophic for either of them. Once again, they had to postpone any thoughts of the sophisticated surgeries they both would endure simultaneously. Eric began dialysis, something he had so valiantly tried to avoid. His diseased kidney function was so meager, it would not allow the doctors to move forward without improving his eGFR number (or filtration rate) by mechanical means. Again, the VA provided quality care in the form of a private jet to take Heather and Eric to Pittsburg, where they would receive their surgeries at the VA Hospital/HJ Heinz Campus. Heather remembers chatting with the anesthesiologist one moment, and waking up drowsy at lunchtime the next. A local apartment with a medical attendant for each was arranged so they could stay near the hospital after a successful surgery. Eric’s mother, Gloria, and sister, Lynn, provided support as well, coming to stay with the recovering couple for a few days.

Eric (in a wig) and Heather (R) in family photo from a few years ago

The healing process was easier for Heather, as her surgery was performed laparoscopically. Several small incisions were made on her abdomen and the donated kidney delicately removed. Eric’s surgery was more invasive and required a large (9 inches!) incision and the removal of his distended, diseased kidney. They healed together and even experienced some of the same symptoms, such as pain and nausea. Eventually, both returned to work. Heather is the owner-operator of The Therapeutic Massage Center. Eric has returned to working with gusto as the head of Florida Marine Engineers, Inc.

Together they joke that Eric has a softer, more sensitive side now with his ‘female’ kidney. They are closer than ever in their relationship, grateful to the universe for orchestrating the events that lead to the best possible outcome of their medical journey, their spiritual growth and their deep love for each other.

Heather is writing an autobiographical account of her experiences. A timeline of her story appears on her blog