Josh Sheldon can’t wait to dive into dinner this Thanksgiving. And on the top of his list is a cheese pizza.
The 18-year-old West Springfield High School senior will be spending this week’s holiday in a lower key manner than usual, since he will be recovering from kidney transplant surgery.
“I’m very grateful, and I’m happy,” said Sheldon, whose kidney transplant took place on Nov. 15. The donor for the surgery was his older sister, Heather.
“When they told me, I said, ‘Sign me up, I’ll do it, whatever I need to do, anything for Josh, if it means him getting better,’” said Heather Sheldon, 27, a West Springfield graduate, who works as a bartender at the Austin Grill in Springfield.
Josh Sheldon was born with a blockage in his urethra, the tube that carries waste out of the body from the bladder. The kidney is used to filter waste and dispose of it through urine, which travels through the urethra. Because of the blockage, levels of waste in his blood were high, meaning he often felt sluggish, and had trouble gaining weight.
“[I feel] sick, tired, very weak,” he said in an interview prior to the transplant.
Most recently, that meant watching his diet. Because of blood test results, Josh Sheldon was put on a strict no-protein diet in the weeks leading up to the surgery, so his kidneys didn’t have to remove unnecessary by-products from his system. With the new kidney, though, all dietary restrictions are off. First on Josh Sheldon’s list — a nice big cheese pizza.
“I can eat as much as I want,” he said.
Because of the blockage, his kidneys began to be overloaded almost immediately after birth. He underwent several surgeries then, and as he grew, his family lived with the awareness that things would eventually get worse.
“They told us at the time [he was born] that there might come a time when he had a growth spurt, that his kidneys might not be able to keep up. And that’s exactly what happened,” said Josh’s mother, Sherry Sheldon.
So when Josh started growing, his kidneys began to struggle. It got gradually worse, until in late 2003, a doctor informed the Sheldons that a kidney transplant would be necessary within the year, or else Josh would have to start dialysis — a process that cleans the blood and duplicates the function of the kidneys, either through a solution or with an artificial kidney machine.
According to the doctor, one of Josh’s kidneys had already completely failed, and the other was functioning at less than a 20-percent rate, which is in the danger level.
“I was in shock. I knew I had kidney failure, but I didn’t know it was that serious,” said Josh Sheldon.
THE REALIZATION that a transplant was not only a good idea but necessary for Josh’s health caught the entire family by surprise. The Sheldons are a blended family, with Josh and his twin sister, Megan, a freshman at George Mason University, born to Sherry and her husband, Robert, when Heather and older brother Cory — whom Robert was raising from a previous marriage — were 10.
Although he’s not a brother by blood, Heather Sheldon said she has always considered Josh just like a brother to her.
“I didn’t have any idea it was affecting his kidneys until about six months ago we found out he was having kidney failure. He didn’t seem like he was sick. He still was active and did things,” said Heather Sheldon.
During the surgery, she said she even wanted her brother right next to her. That wasn’t possible, as a glass partition separated them, but she got her wish in post-op.
“My only wish was for us to be able to recover in the same room,” Heather Sheldon said. “I was like, ‘I want my brother to be right next to me.’ That way, if he makes me mad, I’ll say, ‘I’ll take it back, I’ll take my kidney back.’”
The waiting list for kidney transplants, like that of other major organs, is lengthy, in Josh Sheldon's case up to seven years, so finding a donor from the family became a priority. Heather Sheldon and half-sister Shannon Sheldon both went for blood tests and were matches, but Heather stepped forward to donate.
“I just figured I was at a point in my life where I could do it,” said Heather Sheldon. She said the fact that she already had children — Christopher, 8, and Kyleigh, 3 — made her choice easier.
Once she was approved, Heather Sheldon underwent a series of tests, ranging from a chest X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to a psychological screening, to make sure she understood the ramifications of her decision.
Those tests began in late August and lasted 2 1/2 months. Her attitude through the whole process, especially during the surgery, Heather Sheldon said, could be reflected on the pajama top she wore to the hospital, which read, “Wake me up when it’s over.”
“Do what you need to do, take what you need, just wake me up when it’s over,” she said. Heather also said she received numerous letters and gestures of support from her friends and co-workers at the Austin Grill leading up to the surgery, including several monetary donations intended to help ease her time away from work.
ON SURGERY DAY, Heather and Josh Sheldon arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m. for a scheduled 8 a.m. surgery.
The surgery was a laparoscopic procedure, meaning the abdomen was inflated with gas, creating a space between the wall of the abdomen and the organs inside. In laparoscopic surgery, half-inch incisions are made in the skin, and tubes are inserted so that instruments can be slid through to perform the removal. Previously, surgeons had to make a much larger incision, and even remove a rib in some cases to get to the kidney. Once the kidney was removed from Heather Sheldon, it was flushed with ice water and chilled on ice, then implanted into Josh Sheldon. The entire procedure took six hours total, three of that for Heather Sheldon and three more for Josh Sheldon. They both stayed in the hospital for the remainder of the week, before arriving home on Nov. 19.
"He's really doing amazingly well. They've both made remarkable recoveries," said Sherry Sheldon.
The recovery process for Heather Sheldon is much like any other surgery. Once she recovers from the surgery, she won’t notice her body is only using one kidney. For Josh Sheldon, however, recovery will be more extensive. He will be home for at least two months and will take immunosuppressive medication to prevent his body from rejecting the kidney. That medication will also, however, mean that he can’t be in public around crowds, because of the risk of catching an infectious disease. Even guests will be limited, and anyone with a cold is off limits. That includes Stephanie Brown, his girlfriend of nine months.
“The normal person gets a cold, they’re over it in three to five days. If he gets a cold, he could wind up in the hospital,” said Sherry Sheldon. “Anybody can come to visit him, but they’re just worried people don’t have colds or the sniffles, any kind of illness they could spread.”
Thanksgiving will be different this year, and so will the rest of the holiday season for the Sheldons. Instead of the large family gatherings of years past, this Christmas might be a little more subdued. The family will also be focusing on their health more, said Sherry Sheldon.
“We’ll probably focus less this season on the gifts and the toys and presents, because we have something more to focus on. It kind of puts that all in perspective. It will be important just to have Joshua healthy and to have us all together,” she said.
If all goes well in recovery, Josh Sheldon hopes to return to school in January. He works part time at Kaiser Permanente now, and once he finishes school in June, hopes to work there full time while he takes one remaining class needed to graduate. He is most excited, though, about seeing how dramatically his life will change once his body has the luxury of one fully functioning kidney. He has been told he will gain weight and have more energy, for starters.
"They say after a kidney transplant, you’re a whole different person,” said Heather Sheldon.
“I can’t wait to see what I look like,” said Josh Sheldon.