CHICAGO – At first, Andrew Hogle wanted nothing to do with accepting a kidney from a complete stranger.
There were too many concerns, too many unknowns. Hogle feared that perhaps if he were paired with a stranger in the transplant process, he would somehow receive a less-than-perfect kidney because he was younger and in better shape while another recipient would receive a better organ.
Like the one his wife, Alden-Hebron girls basketball coach Jen Nichols, has to offer.
The plan from the beginning was for Nichols to donate to her husband even though her blood type wasn’t an exact match. That way, the couple figured, all of their questions about an already life-changing procedure would be answered.
But when their insurance company declined to cover the cost of the surgery because the difference in blood type made the procedure experimental, Hogle learned if he wanted to receive a kidney to replace the one that he’s had issues with since his early 20s, he’d likely have to accept it from someone he didn’t know.
On Thursday, Hogle – a coach with the Illinois Magic AAU basketball program and former Jacobs basketball player – is scheduled to undergo kidney transplant surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Twenty minutes later, Nichols – who starred at Woodstock and who is a former Northwest Herald Female Athlete of the Year recipient – also will go in for surgery, donating the kidney she intended for Andrew for a total stranger who – like Hogle – is in need.
Just a month ago, the Crystal Lake couple were exploring options. Three weeks ago, they learned they had been accepted into a couples match program that groups donors and recipients together, creating perfect pairs. Doctors at Northwestern said the program has a 99 percent success rate.
The only catch: No one knows who they are being paired with and possibly never will. What begins as a process charted out on paper becomes one built around specifics from a series of lab tests and other medical measurables, making certain that what appeared to be a perfect fit in the beginning really is.
For Hogle, who learned in October he would need a new kidney within the next year, the procedure requires a certain level of faith.
“It’s a huge relief and it’s very exciting,” Hogle said Wednesday, seated in a crowded lobby on the second floor of the hospital where his surgery will take place. “But at the same time, you don’t want to get too excited because so much can happen.
“As excited as we are for July 11 and for everything to change for us, we have to stay even-keeled and realize that something can happen and life could go on for a little longer like this.”
On Wednesday, Hogle and Nichols left their Crystal Lake home at 5 a.m., wading through the morning rush hour crawl on Interstate 90 to be in Chicago for lab testing by 7. From there, Hogle underwent a chest X-ray before he and Nichols both had echocardiograms just to make sure there were no issues eight days before the surgeries were scheduled to take place.
Then both sat through a series of meetings, making certain they understood exactly what will take place the day of their surgery, before meeting with one of the surgeons who will oversee the procedure.
“This is probably the first time in my life I’ve been excited to be at a doctor’s office,” Nichols said Wednesday. “I got poked three times today, and I didn’t complain once because I know it’s for such a good cause.”
Throughout the day, the couple went through various tests and informational meetings, seated in a room with as few as five other people and as many as 30 others.
At different times, Hogle found himself glancing around at the faces of the other patients, unsure whether they were recipients like him or donors like Nichols. The match program is one built around strict confidentiality with each individual required to sign off on whether they’ll reveal who they are matched with as part of the couples group.
At times, Hogle admitted, not knowing can be difficult.
“You look at everyone in the room and say, ‘Geez, I wonder if that’s them,’ ” Hogle said. “Then Jen gets word that she’s donating to a ‘him’ and so every male that walks by, you’re wondering if that could be him. So you’re left kind of wondering.”
In addition to the four couples, each group also includes a good Samaritan, a donor who is part of the program with the lone mission of helping save the life of another person. Each individual goes through similar tests, making sure they remain a good fit for the match program. For Nichols, being part of the match group is a perfect lesson in teamwork.
“You hope that they’re all as committed and as excited as you are,” said Nichols, who went through four rounds of blood testing sessions Wednesday. “At any point, any of us donors could decide we don’t want to go forward with it and that could completely change the outcome of the transplant.
“So it’s one of those things you have to know what you’re working with, but stay positive at the same time.”
On Thursday, Hogle’s surgery will last five hours while Nichols’ procedure will last only three. Hogle will remain hospitalized for two days afterward to make certain there are no complications, while Nichols will likely be released the next day. Once those are completed, the couple will need to participate in periodic checkups, making sure Hogle’s new kidney is functioning properly and Nichols’ remaining kidney is working fine on its own.
As unnerving as their journey to this point has been at times, Hogle and Nichols say they will go into their respective surgeries at peace, knowing their lives are about to change for the better.
For Hogle, undergoing the transplant removes much of the uncertainties he has faced since last October. His medical condition has forced him to step away from coaching for the past several months.
But once his recovery is complete, he, Nichols and Hogle’s 13-year-old son, Joe, hope they can enjoy life together as a family for the first time.
“Since last October, it’s just been day to day where we just change our life and make it work,” Nichols said. “Now, it’s like, wow – it’s all going to change in a week.”
One question that remains is whether they’ll learn the identity of the other donor. Hogle understands that person could choose to remain anonymous.
“I think it will be easier if we end up not knowing because you want to be so grateful to that person,” Hogle said. “If they don’t want to be acknowledged for doing such an amazing thing, it kind of takes a little pressure off of you.”