The ultimate gift: Woman donates kidney to spouse

By Debbie Bolles

Gail Fankhauser says she gladly donated a kidney to her husband, Mark.

When Gail Fankhauser learned her husband Mark’s kidneys were failing, she didn’t think twice about donating one of her own to save his life.

The thought of robotic machinery removing her kidney didn’t bother her either, even if she was just the third person at UT Southwestern Medical Center to have that organ removed by the da Vinci Surgical System, an increasingly popular tool in transplant operations.

“I’ve been with this man since we were 17 years old. We have faced all the ups and downs of life together, and I felt I needed to be the donor because we have always been there for each other,” said Mrs. Fankhauser, who with her husband recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of their transplant surgeries.

Living donors in good health typically decide which type of kidney removal surgery they want: robotically assisted, laparoscopic, or conventional. Dr. Juan Arenas, Chief of Surgical Transplantation at UT Southwestern and Mrs. Fankhauser’s surgeon, said the benefits of robotic surgery include more precise dissection, better visualization, more reliable instruments, and advanced capacity for movement of surgical tools.

“Robotic surgery is totally intuitive. The same movements you make with your hands outside at the console are replicated by the robot,” said Dr. Arenas, also Surgical Director of UTSW’s Liver Transplant Program.

Four years ago, Dr. Arenas became the first transplant surgeon in North Texas to remove a living donor’s kidney robotically. Before joining UTSW, he had performed 40 other robotically assisted kidney removals. Given that a UT Southwestern surgeon performed the first kidney transplant in Texas at Parkland Memorial Hospital in the 1960s, the transplant team continues to embrace new technology, investigating both single-incision kidney removal techniques and use of the da Vinci for eventual transplantation of a kidney into a recipient.

While someone in need of a kidney typically waits five years or more for a deceased organ donor match, transplants from living donors result in better long-term survival rates, partly because kidney damage is lessened because of shorter surgery wait times. About 33 percent of kidney transplants at UT Southwestern currently come from living donors, as was the case with Mark Fankhauser and his donor wife.

“I was in stage 5 renal failure just before the transplant. That means I was on the verge of either having to go on dialysis or get a transplant. It was very serious,” said Mr. Fankhauser, 59, who lives at Cedar Creek Lake. “My wife’s the hero here. She made a tremendous sacrifice for me so that we could continue our lives together.”

Mr. Fankhauser, a partner in the Dallas law firm Little Pedersen Fankhauser LLP, learned in 1997 that he had polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which cysts form in the kidneys and cause damage. In 2003, he began seeing Dr. Robert Toto, Professor of Internal Medicine and Clinical Sciences at UT Southwestern, who monitored his condition until it got to the point that a transplant was needed.

As soon as Mr. Fankhauser was placed on the national kidney transplant waiting list – an action required before living donors can be tested for a match – his wife stepped forward. As it turned out, her kidney was a match.

“I knew when they told us Mark was going to need a kidney that I would be a match. People ask me how I knew. It was just a strong feeling that I can’t really explain,” said Mrs. Fankhauser, 59. “We were very fortunate that the transplant was successful, and it was a true honor for me to give a kidney to Mark.”

A perfect match

The surgeries took place May 23, 2011, at St. Paul University Hospital. Mrs. Fankhauser went in first and had her kidney removed by Dr. Arenas. In a nearby operating room, another surgical team led by Dr. Meelie Debroy, Surgical Director of the Kidney/Pancreas Transplant Program, prepared Mr. Fankhauser for his operation. The transplant was a success.

Even though Mr. Fankhauser’s new kidney is working well, life hasn’t been without a few medical complications since the transplant. About two months later, Mr. Fankhauser suffered a severe headache and returned to UT Southwestern for a CT scan. The scan revealed a brain tumor, which luckily turned out to be benign and was surgically removed on July 27, 2011. He returned to UT Southwestern that fall when the area of his brain surgery started bleeding, although no intervention was required.

“If there’s something going on with Mark, I want him at UT Southwestern – that’s the only place I want him,” said Mrs. Fankhauser, who considers the care and expertise her husband received second to none.

“Because of Gail’s gift and the care I received at UT Southwestern, I have energy now, and we have some certainty in our lives,” said Mr. Fankhauser.


Dr. Toto is Director of the Houston J. and Florence A. Doswell Center for the Development of New Approaches for the Treatment of Hypertension. He holds the Mary M. Conroy Professorship in Kidney Disease.