10/21/07 — Kidney a small price to pay for years of love

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Kidney a small price to pay for years of love

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 21, 2007 2:02 AM

A younger Donnie Butts walked hand in hand with his "little girl" along the shore of an under-populated beach. Diane still calls it "our place."

Summers at the coast just always seemed to bring out the best in their father-daughter bond, she said.

But lately, the two have carried with them more painful memories -- the day Donnie could not make it through his morning walk, the moment a doctor said he had "rapidly progressing crescentic nephritis."

And Donnie will tell you that, soon, he and his daughter will be connected in another way.

Diane is giving her father a kidney more than a year after a shocking diagnosis made a once-healthy man pray for death.

So forget about the beaches -- at least until after Tuesday's operation.

Don't talk about the sting of sunburn or the fishing pole Donnie loves so well.

The 66-year-old would rather tell you about the day his "little girl" offered him a life without dialysis -- and just how proud he is of the woman she has become.

"At first, I was really concerned. I still think about it," Donnie said. "She might need that kidney sometime."

"It's not a sacrifice, Daddy," Diane responds, crying. "I'm glad it was me."

"It is," he says. "You're sacrificing an organ out of your body."

Diane will tell you she just wants her "daddy" back -- she needs him at the beach next summer to match her step for step along the shore, she wants him to enjoy her son's upcoming wedding.

But she admits she never expected her father to get sick, that the avid outdoorsman and bricklayer by trade had always been the strong one.

"He was always the one that has helped all of us," Diane said. "If we had a problem, we would call him, and he would come fix it. Nobody expected something like this to happen to him."

And for the better part of his life, Donnie never gave them reason to worry -- falling ill, for him, meant a few days with the sniffles or a light cough.

But when he could not make it through his walk one morning, he knew something was wrong.

"For 64 years, I stayed in as good of health as anybody and then it just 180-turned," he said. "I knew something was out of sync, but I didn't know what it was. The first thing that popped into my mind was that my heart was a little clogged up."

Donnie had no idea that all the while his kidneys were failing.

"He went to the doctor, and they couldn't figure out what in the world was going on with him. So they did a bunch of tests," Diane said. "He was really sick. He just needed to lie."

"They detected blood and protein in my urine and that's what started it," Donnie added. "It felt like I was seasick."

Doctors at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill diagnosed Donnie with RPCN in June 2006.

His kidneys were no longer functioning, they said.

"They thought they could jump-start his kidneys with steroids and other things. They tried everything they could but none of that worked," Diane said. "They had to get the toxins out of his body, so they started him on dialysis right there in the hospital.

"They tried a lot of different drugs, lots of chemo-type medicines, but his body couldn't tolerate it," she added, tears streaming down her face. "It made him sicker than he was. I mean really, really sick. He couldn't eat, he couldn't sleep and he was covered in sores and lost his hair. He thought he was dying and we weren't sure that he wasn't."

Donnie often "begged" for death.

The pain was just too much to bear, he said.

"I went for probably four or five months, I really didn't care if I lived or died," he said, looking across the kitchen at his daughter, a tear rolling down his face. "But then it started getting a little better. It gave me hope."

Diane and her mother, Ann, had decided to take Donnie off many of the medications they believed were making him sicker.

His hair started to grow back, and his spirits began to climb.

But Donnie admits that three days of dialysis per week is no way to live -- that much, but not all, of the pain had subsided.

"That dialysis, I know it saves lives, but it's a boring time. You just sit there watching blood run in and out of you -- it's bad stuff," he said. "And you don't feel good the next day. By the time you get to feeling good, it's time to go back. It's a terrible cycle that never ends."

And then there are the diet restrictions and knowing he would never again "really work."

"I love the outdoors, doing things with my hands. It about kills me inside knowing I am unable," Donnie said. "And you have to watch everything, you have to be really careful about what you eat or drink. I haven't had a cold drink in a year and a half, and I used to love a Dr. Pepper as good as any man, I reckon."

The "experts" told the Goldsboro family that a transplant was Donnie's only chance at a more normal life.

And with the news came an outpouring of support for a man Diane says has always been there for those who signed up to be his donor.

"Everybody wanted to be tested," she said. "We all filled out the paperwork."

But donating an organ requires near-perfect health and a match.

"I was the only one that matched," Diane said. "I was thrilled. I wanted to do it anyway."

She discussed the idea of a transplant with her husband and children.

They were behind the idea from the beginning, she said.

"When you have a family member who is sick, especially one of your parents, it affects the entire family," Diane said. "It's all you can think about. How in the world are we going to make it through this?"

So Tuesday, a daughter will gladly put her life on the line to help her father get his back.

After all, a kidney "seems like nothing" compared to all he has done for her.

"I'm scared. Sure, I'm scared," Diane said. "But there is no doubt -- there was never a doubt -- about whether I would do this. I would do it for anybody, but especially for my daddy, for my parents. They have done everything for me. It's the least I can do."

And "if all goes as planned," you will find Donnie back along that shoreline next summer, a fishing pole in his hand, his "little girl" by his side.

"It makes you feel great. It really does," he said, tearing up. "If things go as well as they say it could, I might even start doing brickwork again."

That would suit Diane just fine.

"It's a big deal, but I am ready to do it. Nothing will make any of us happier than seeing him back outside doing his normal thing," she said. "I just want my daddy to have his life back."