On a cool, jewel-bright April day last year, transplant surgeon Dr. Douglas Hale held up his thumb and forefinger three inches apart. "About this big," he told a petite redhead named Amy Peterson, describing an incision he was planning to make in her abdomen, in order to extract her left kidney.
Amy, a banker in her early 40s, has known since she was nine years old that she might one day go under the knife to save her father's life. Walt Peterson was 30 when he was diagnosed with membranous nephropathy, a disorder that affects the kidneys' ability to filter wastes from the bloodstream. Doctors told Walt that his kidney function was already below 60 percent, and that he'd eventually need dialysis or a kidney transplant in order to survive.
He managed to eke by with marginally operational kidneys until the autumn of 2010, when he started feeling fatigued. Tests revealed that his kidneys were working at less than 20 percent capacity.
In January, Amy began a round of screening to find out whether she had the correct blood type and antibodies to give her father a kidney. As it turned out, she was a perfect match. "Apparently, that’s a very rare thing and really increases the chances of this being a successful transplant," she explains.
Father and daughter, both strong-minded Southerners with gentle drawls, have mirror-image personalities—iron resolve softened by low-key senses of humor. That shared trait helped them get through some anxious times, even in the weeks before the April 21 surgery. "I said, 'I get to win every argument for the rest of our lives,'" Amy jokes. "And he said, 'Well, you certainly get to win every argument until the 21st.'"
On a chilly morning 10 days before the transplant, the two shared a quiet moment between phlebotomists' needles and meetings with surgeons. They razzed each other about the longstanding dueling nicknames that reflect their affectionate contests of will. "I call him 'The General,' Amy says, issuing her quicksilver laugh.
"And I call Amy 'The Little General," says Walt, his trademark gruffness dissolving into a smile. "Her blood is a perfect match to me. So she is, no doubt about it, a chip off the old block."
A burly sexagenarian from the Deep South, Walt rarely surrenders to emotion. But for a moment in this fluorescent-lit waiting room, he was overcome. "I love Amy with all my heart," he says, pausing to gather himself. "But I loved her that much before this. It's very humbling that Amy would be willing to do this. My only apprehension is for her.”
Amy, too, grew increasingly anxious, she admits, as surgery day drew near. But she wasn't particularly concerned about the health risks. Because she had to pass such a rigorous screening, Hale explains, she'll likely fare better in the long-term than the average person with two kidneys. "The risk of you developing kidney disease compared to the regular population is actually much smaller," he tells her.
"I really do have complete faith that everything's going to be all right," Amy says on the afternoon before the procedure, smiling wryly. "I'm not scared of dying. I'm scared of suffering. I'm scared of pain."
In the recovery room after surgery, groggy from anesthesia, Amy flashes a half-smile through the tape and tubing, soreness and nausea. "I have heard the news that my dad has a kidney that started working immediately," she says, beaming. "And I'm very excited and pleased."
The weeks and months after surgery were tougher than Amy had imagined—her pain more insistent, her recovery longer. And the fiercely independent career woman quickly lost patience with missing work and relying on friends to help with simple household tasks.
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Now a year later, Amy's former left kidney (which the two nicknamed "Gertrude") lives inside her dad's abdomen, cleansing his blood, giving him life. "I didn't know how bad off I was until Gertrude kicked in," Walt chuckles. "She seems to be thriving in the new environment."
For Amy, seeing her dad get his old energy (and humor) back has made it all worthwhile. "It's several months of extreme discomfort in exchange for 20 years of a human being's life," she says. "That's a really easy math problem. That's a no-brainer. I get to keep my daddy. There's no greater gift to give yourself than that."