One FLSmidth employee saves the life of another with a donation of a kidney.
After working for FLSmidth for more than 33 years, Paula Elton took some time away for a much-needed extended vacation.
But rather than an exotic trip to Hong Kong, Paris or even Portland (her favorite getaway spot), Paula, who is FLSmidth’s Customer Services Operations Manager, was headed toward the sterilized space of an operating room.
And it wasn’t actually her that needed the break—it was her nephew and fellow FLSmidth employee Chris Wentling, whose failing kidneys required a transplant before it was too late.
“I was just getting sicker and sicker, and my health and energy were going down,” Chris said. “I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs or down a long hallway—it was too exhausting. It was a steady downhill and we were getting to the point where I was going to drop off a cliff.”
Chris, who works in rebuild sales and modernizations, contracted pneumonia back in July of 2011 and ended up staying in the hospital for seven days. While there, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, a condition that is common on his mother’s side of the family.
Chris continued to work full time, but his physical condition kept deteriorating until May of 2012, when he started dialysis to artificially perform his kidneys’ function of maintaining his body's internal equilibrium of water and minerals.
His schedule for this was brutal—he would work a full day and then go in for five-hour dialysis sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“Those days were 15- or 16-hour days. I’d work until 3:30 p.m. or so and then go in for the treatments until 8:30 p.m. or so,” he said. “That experience just completely drained me and, even though it was helping, my body wasn’t reacting well to the dialysis.”
His condition also required Chris to watch his diet fastidiously. He couldn’t have anything with salt, calcium or phosphorous in it. This kept him from partaking of soda, packaged foods and dairy products, among many other things.
“My doctor just told me, ‘If you ever wonder if you can eat it or not, just taste it. If it tastes good, spit it out.’ So it was pretty rough,” he said.
Throughout this time, Chris’ name was sitting on a list waiting for a potential kidney donor. Successful donors, though, have to match blood type, tissue type and antibody type, and it’s rare to find a living donor that’s outside of your family. Chris was on the list for nearly two years before Paula was identified as a match.
“He was doing really bad—the dialysis was wiping him out and we didn’t think he was going to get a kidney anytime soon due to his rare type,” Paula said. “We didn’t know how much longer he had. He looked like a zombie and was getting worse and worse all the time.”
Once Paula was identified as a match, the surgery was immediately set for July 23, 2013—on Chris’ 34th birthday.
Before the surgery, though, a group of FLSmidth employees had something in store for Chris and Paula.
“They threw a big surprise party in the cafeteria a few days before the surgery,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that at all. They gave us a gift bag and goodies for the hospital—sweat pants, books, games, movies, all kinds of stuff. My colleagues are awesome—I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
The transplant was a success and turned out to be the most memorable birthday present Chris has ever received—he got his life back.
“With the time requirement of dialysis and all the other things, and my failing health and how that restricted me, it’s literally like my life has been given back to me,” he said.
The past two years had seen him spiral from being a healthy and outgoing husband, father and friend to being a guy who spent each waking moment just trying to get by, not having time for the people and things he cared about most.
“The whole experience was very straining on my family,” he said. “I didn’t realize how down and withdrawn I was physically and mentally. I’d just go home after everything, eat my dinner and go to bed, then wake up the next day and do the same thing. I was booked solid. It was like trying to run a marathon when I couldn’t even walk a mile.”
When he awoke from the anesthesia-induced sleep of the surgery, he found himself whole again, with an entirely new outlook on life.
“Now everything is changed, and my family has told me that they’re so glad that I’m back,” he said. “I just didn’t realize the gradual decline of my attitude and health, and my view of life had tapered down so far that I got to a point where I was just trying to survive and get through it instead of trying to enjoy the things around me. And now that’s exactly what I try to do every day—enjoy my family and spend time with them.”
Chris, his wife and their 13-year-old daughter can now make plans to do the things—like camping and fishing—they haven’t been able to for the past two years.
“It’s too late in the year to do a lot of that stuff now,” he said, “but next summer is going to be fun.”
He’s also enjoying his new-found appreciation of the food he missed so dearly.
“As soon as I woke up after the surgery all I wanted was French fries,” he said. “I told people, ‘Don’t bring presents or cards. You can bring money, but I’d prefer French fries.’ I was on a liquid and then semi-solids diet after the surgery and had to wait four days before I could have the fries, and I was a little frustrated about that.”
Paula was out of the office for about seven weeks after the surgery, while Chris returned to work in late September after nine weeks off.
The experience, while painful physically, was meaningful for both of them. Being able to donate one of her kidneys to a family member is something that strikes close to home for Paula, who watched her father do the same thing for her sister years earlier.
Her father, who passed away 23 years ago, was one of her closest friends.
“I was always so proud of my dad for doing that for her,” she said. “And when I was being wheeled in to surgery, I felt my dad’s presence. It brought my dad back to me, if even just for a little while in that operating room. My mom and I miss him so much.”
Paula, who was honored by FLSmidth last September as a recipient of the company’s prestigious 1990 Memorial Foundation Award, has no lingering side effects besides a few scars that will serve as lasting reminders of her willingness to help.
“It was so cool seeing Chris there after the surgery, healthy and happy and eating and walking,” she said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was such a great experience giving him that. It still makes me cry a little bit, but they are happy tears. He’s such a good kid.”
Despite the serious nature of their experience, Paula keeps things light-hearted with Chris, especially since the two work in the same corner of FLSmidth’s Midvale campus and see each other regularly.
“One thing that’s strange is that when I see him here at work, I think, ‘That’s my kidney walking down the hall,’” she said. “Other times I’ll see him and say, ‘No wonder you look so good, you have a girl part in you now, you’re better than the OEM now.’ It’s just a joke, and we have a lot of fun with it.”
For Chris, the feelings of relief and gratitude run beyond just being able to walk down the hall or come to work without worrying about a grueling session of dialysis looming afterward.
“The thing I really want to emphasize is how completely supportive everyone at FLSmidth has been,” he said. “From the time I got sick, my teammates and immediate bosses—Mike Boyette, Connie Allison and Eileen Turnipseed—have helped me out in any way that they could. I couldn’t have asked for anything else than what they’ve done for me. It’s been so great.”
And for Paula?
“I owe her a lot,” he said. “As she has done so many times in the past, Paula came through when it looked as if nobody else could. I can only hope that at sometime in the future, I’ll have the opportunity to repay her for the selfless kindness and generosity she continually shows me.”
Both Chris and Paula encourage everyone to consider becoming a donor. "The rewards of giving the gift of life," Paula said, "are simply beyond words."
CONTACT: Paula Elton