Young kidney patient meets miracle woman

Donor: A less invasive surgical procedure prompts an Indiana resident to make an unusual move by offering a kidney to a stranger.

September 01, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Though few words passed between Christopher Bear Bieniek and Joyce A. Roush yesterday, there was plenty of emotion.

Roush, 45, flew in from Ft. Wayne, Ind., to meet the 13-year-old Bieniek, a week before she is scheduled to donate a kidney to him, in what medical experts say may be an unprecedented gift by a living donor to a stranger.

Bieniek, a self-professed shy teen-ager from Harford County, more comfortable with video games than with public speaking, said he found himself a bit tongue-tied during the private, get-acquainted session with Roush.

"I didn't really say anything," Bieniek said yesterday after the meeting. "I just gave her a hug."

Roush's decision to donate a kidney to someone she has never met has drawn national attention. An organ donation coordinator, she made the decision after attending a seminar last year given by a Johns Hopkins Hospital doctor who pioneered a less invasive kidney removal procedure.

Yesterday, surrounded by Bieniek, his father, mother and sister in a conference room at Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center in Baltimore, Roush said that she was more than a bit nervous about meeting the recipient of her unusual gift.

"You're complete strangers and suddenly your lives are connected," said Roush, who is the mother of five children. "There was a definite connection with his mother because we are both moms, and this has heightened my awareness that this could have been my youngest who needed a kidney."

The Bienieks have been waiting eight months for a donor for Christopher -- who is affectionately called by his middle name Bear -- after he went into renal failure just before Christmas.

Terry Bieniek, Christopher's mother, clutched Roush's hand as she tried to express how the family has coped with her son's illness, which has limited his activity and forced him onto medication and daily dialysis.

"It's been really rough on all of us," Bieniek said, her voice choking with emotion. "This lady here is my miracle."

Next Tuesday's surgery at Hopkins is known as a laparoscopic nephrectomy, in which surgeons using a camera inserted into the abdomen are able to remove the kidney after making a 2- to 3-inch incision below the patient's navel. The technique is less painful and requires a shorter hospital stay than conventional surgery.

Roush said she hopes her donation will heighten awareness of the need for more organ donors and spur others to come forward. Dr. Barbara A. Fivush, chief of pediatric nephrology at Hopkins, said there are thousands of people nationwide awaiting transplants, including close to 1,000 patients under the age of 19.

She said most organ donations are post-mortem. Live donations tend to be from friends or relatives, Fivush said.

"I have to tell you that this is a remarkable woman here," Fivush said, gesturing to Roush. "But it's important to remember that anyone can be a donor. With just the signing of a donor card, we can all give the gift of life."

Roush proudly held a crystal clock that the Bienieks gave her yesterday, as well as a poem, written by Christopher's 18-year-old sister Pamela Reynolds, which included the words, "You are an angel in the sky, without you Bear would die."

Roush will see the Bienieks again when she returns next week for the surgery. Yesterday's meeting was the start of a lifelong friendship, said Roush and the Bienieks.

"Let's go take a family photo," said Reynolds, touching Roush's arm. "Family."

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