Kidney transplant gives Tualatin woman new lease on life

Luauna Dean with her husband, John.
Luauna Dean (right) with her husband, John. Mike Antonelli/Tualatin Life

The third time, or more precisely the third call, really was a charm for Luauna Dean. Not just a charm, a lifesaver. It was the call that brought her a new kidney.

And that new kidney is bringing back lost pieces of an old life that had slowed and narrowed during the three years she waited when her daily dialysis routine kept her tethered close to home.

“It’s amazing that I thought I was okay,” she said. “I didn’t realize until after the transplant how crappy I’d felt.”

Dean was diagnosed in 2005 with FSGS, a rare kidney disease that attacks the organ’s filtering units and causes scarring that slowly diminishes function, eventually leading to renal failure. She spent three years on the national organ transplant list.

The disease impacts about 40,000 people, according to NephCure Kidney International. About half of them, like Dean, will eventually have kidney failure.

For nearly three years she was on home dialysis, with a permanent port in her abdomen that allowed her to plug into the dialysis machine overnight. While she slept, it did her kidneys’ job, clearing toxins from her blood.

Gone were the days of exploring faraway places with her husband, John. Long hikes were clipped to short walks. A week in Hawaii became a weekend at the coast. Cruises were out of the question.

Her ever-slowing pace became so normal that she couldn’t recognize the full impact of her illness.

Friends and family rallied around Dean as the disease progressed. One of them published a public ask for a living donor in this newspaper; several others offered to be her donor. But none were a viable match.

While Dean waited, she set up a home office and continued working as a senior consultant at Rose City Moving and Storage, where John also works. The couple has worked together throughout their three-decade relationship.

Life on the list was an emotional game of hurry up and wait, filled with one almost after another.

The first time OHSU called to say a kidney was available, the donation evaporated before she left the house.

The second time she was already at the hospital when doctors deemed the waiting organ was unviable. That third call? Dean remembers it clearly – October 2020.

“It was just kind of a cuddle-up dreary fall day,” she said. “I had just gotten back from work when the call came.” Then it was done. And just like that, the waiting became healing.

As her body recovered from the surgery, Dean’s old vitality began to return.

She’s had some challenges, like an early- on organ rejection that was quelled with a change in immunosuppressant medications, and a recent infection that landed her back in the hospital. But Luauna and John are focused on what she’s regained.

“The word is used a lot, but it’s a literal rebirth that for a long time we didn’t know we were going to get,” John said.

More than 100,000 people are currently waiting for an organ transplant, according to the organization Donate Life. The vast majority of those, 85 percent, are in line for a kidney. Every nine minutes another name is added to the list.

Though 40,000 transplants were performed in 2021, not everyone gets the lifesaving organ they need. About 17 people die every day waiting.

“I tell people all the time, a person we never met and will never get to meet saved four lives that day,” John said. The donor’s other kidney and two other organs were also transplanted that day. “It’s a gift that can’t be repaid other than becoming an organ donor yourself.”

A few months after the transplant surgery, the couple celebrated their anniversary with a trip to the Oregon coast. In a weekend of
firsts, they traveled without dialysis equipment and tested her growing stamina with increasingly longer hikes.

“I hadn’t been on a good hike for years,” Dean said. “We took a couple of short walks one day and then the next day we took a much longer one. I asked my husband ‘Can you believe I’m doing this?’ He said: ‘I didn’t think you even would have tried.”

Dean still checks in for monthly visits and monitors her weight and blood pressure daily–logging the numbers to create a long-term health portrait. She and John are also busy planning future travel adventures and spending time with their three grandchildren.

“I’m not surprised at her inner strength,” John said. “The bond we felt all along only grew stronger through this.”