In 2001, San Diego veteran John Quesenberry knew something was wrong with his health. While organizing a reunion for the unit he served with during his first of two tours in Vietnam, the retired military officer felt like he had hit a wall.
“I was in my mid 50s and tired all the time,” he said. “My energy levels fluctuated drastically. I felt sick — and I looked sick. People told me my skin appeared yellowish-gray.”
Shortly after the reunion, John went to Scripps Clinic in San Diego and was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), an inherited disorder characterized by the growth of cysts in the kidneys.
His mom also had the disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, PKD is among the leading causes of kidney failure. About 600,000 people in the United States have it. Symptoms often do not crop up until middle age.
Over the next few years, PKD eroded John’s quality of life. Formerly athletic and active, he felt mentally and physically challenged.
“Stress made it all worse,” said the former helicopter pilot. “In addition to losing my health, I lost my temper and my sense of humor.”
By 2008, John’s kidney function had deteriorated. He underwent dialysis, a procedure used to provide an artificial replacement for lost renal function. It temporarily staved off the symptoms of PKD, but was far from a permanent solution. John needed a new kidney. Both his niece and one of his children offered to donate one.
Because of the close familial tie, John’s son, Chris, a then 42-year-old father of four, was the most suitable match. His organ was the least likely to be rejected. However, Chris’ decision to donate a kidney required careful consideration.
If one parent has PKD, there is a 50 percent chance that the disease gene will pass to a child. Potentially, Chris or his kids could develop the condition — and need the same lifeline his dad required.
Knowing the facts, John’s son chose to proceed. Just days before Easter of 2008, the pair had simultaneous surgeries at Scripps Center for Organ and Cell Transplantation in La Jolla, Calif.
“The transplant was a rebirth for me,” said John.
A bout with the flu made Chris’ recovery challenging. His resilience prevailed. Eight months after giving his dad a kidney, he ran the Philadelphia Marathon in under four hours.
John Quesenberry isn’t running races, but he is walking briskly around his neighborhood in University City with renewed energy. Approaching retirement, he is enjoying his new lease on life, his 10 grandchildren and expressing gratitude for the great care he received at Scripps.
When he tells the story about the lifesaving donation he received from his benevolent son, tears bead in John’s eyes — and he beams.
“I am very proud and awestruck at the gift he gave me. It changed my life drastically,” he said. “Organ donation is the most selfless thing someone can do for another person. I will forever be grateful.”