Karen Hildebrandt: Quiet Hero

By Sally Anne Flecker | Fall 2014

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The email stood out on the Klatch last September from the usual notices about football tickets and fundraisers. On the informal Mendoza listserv, someone had forwarded an email from a woman, Rebecca, who had been living with kidney disease for 24 years. The disease had progressed. She needed a kidney donor. 

Karen Hildebrandt was immediately struck. “I’m healthy,” she thought. “I could do this.” In fact, the Stayer Center facilities manager is so healthy she jokes about getting a cold just to get a day off. “I just can’t lie and take a sick day,” she says.

She forwarded the email to her husband, Larry. That night they talked, and later Hildebrandt prayed about it. She would make the phone call, she decided.

It was because of her husband that Hildebrandt considered donating a kidney. She knew the toll a devastating illness takes on a family. In May 2012, Larry had been diagnosed with stage four cancer at the base of his tongue. In the weeks leading up to the final diagnosis, the waiting for specialist appointments and then test results were hard on everyone. Meanwhile, the tumor grew so rapidly the doctors weren’t able to even intubate Larry to put in a feeding tube to sustain him should his throat swell from chemo. Fortunately, the tumor responded quickly to the treatments. Within a week and a half, Larry could feel a difference. He’s been in remission since January 2013.

The support that Hildebrandt and her husband received from friends and co-workers at both Mendoza and Phoenix Stamping, where Larry is employed, still brings Hildebrandt to the point of tears. “It was this blessing from friends and family, this outpouring of love that we received, that inspired me to give,” she says. “Most people would not think of having cancer as a blessing, but that is truly how Larry and I feel.”

In the meantime, several days passed after Hildebrandt made the decision to explore kidney donation. She hadn’t yet picked up the phone, but she had been thinking about it as she was out running work errands. Then, as she drove down Grape Road, she saw a larger-than-life Rebecca on a billboard: “One kidney could save my life. Will you consider being my donor?”

“I thought, ‘Okay, God, I got it,’” says Hildebrandt. “It was a sign—literally. I came back to work and called Loyola Hospital in Chicago.”

The first step was to have blood work done. She was a match.  Could she come to Loyola for a full day of testing, including a psychological evaluation to make sure Hildebrandt was doing this of her own free will and understood the risks? It was December by the time the donation board at Loyola called and said she had been accepted as a donor. 

“I was in the kitchen when I got the call. My stomach did a little flip,” she remembers. “I couldn’t stop smiling.” She thought about Rebecca, guessing she would be excited, but also nervous that her anonymous donor might back out. She wished she could reach out and reassure her.

Hildebrandt was about to take some of her many accrued sick days. Before then, though, she would need to talk to her two teenaged daughters. She wanted to approach the topic of her kidney donation very delicately. She understood how vulnerable the girls still felt after having gone through the possibility of losing their father to cancer. How could she ask them to understand that she was voluntarily putting herself in a situation that might cause them more grief?

“At first they asked, why would you do this?” Hildebrandt remembers. She explained that she felt called to do it. “I really felt like it was a gift I was giving back to Jesus,” she says. “It was a way for me to thank God for the blessings of Larry’s renewed health.” She assured them of the safety of the procedure, sharing statistics from the Loyola website and the National Kidney Foundation. “Once the idea settled in, they supported me a hundred percent and shared my excitement,” she says.

The surgery was scheduled for February. Hildebrandt and her husband arrived bright and early at 5 a.m. As they were at the counter checking in, they noticed a woman and her husband in the waiting room already. “Karen, I think that’s Rebecca,” Larry whispered. Hildebrandt knew Rebecca’s name and face from the email and billboard. She had also looked at her blog, Rebeccaneedsakidney.com. But Rebecca didn’t know anything about her donor yet. The hospital prefers the donation to be anonymous until after the surgery. Then the pair was welcome to exchange letters if they chose, and even make arrangements to meet. In the meantime, Hildebrandt says she felt a little like she was spying as they watched her across the waiting room.

The surgery was done laparoscopically without incident. Hildebrandt actually left the hospital the next day, and has been fine ever since. She cashed in on a week’s worth of sick days, then worked from home for another three to limit the risk of doing any heavy lifting at Stayer. 

She and Rebecca did finally meet. In fact, Hildebrandt was present at Rebecca’s celebration of life party. She isn’t in the habit of telling too many people that she donated a kidney to a stranger. She doesn’t want to make herself out a hero. On the other hand, she says, if telling her story encourages someone just even to give blood, she’d be happy. In the end, the donation was easy, she says: “I say that cautiously, understanding that each person and surgery is different. When you know that it’s in God’s hands, the worries go away.”