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Teacher donates kidney to former student

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SACKETS HARBOR — Jennifer L. Berie, a Spanish teacher at Sackets Harbor Central School, said it was meant to be.

After finding out that her kidney was a perfect match for a former student whose kidney function was rapidly plummeting, Mrs. Berie, Adams, decided to become a donor.

“My surgeon said it was like my body was making a kidney just for him,” she said.

She and 23-year-old Nicholas T. Thompson, who had been her student six years ago, had their operations June 4 at Strong Memorial Hospital, Rochester.

With only 10 percent kidney function before the surgery, Mr. Thompson was gray and was sleeping more than 16 hours a day.

When they came out of the operating room, Mr. Thompson’s new kidney already was working. His kidney function shot up to 58 percent, and Mrs. Berie felt well enough to go back to work 13 days later to finish the school year.

Mr. Thompson, Sackets Harbor, was diagnosed with kidney reflux when he was 6 years old. The doctors told him he would eventually need a kidney transplant, possibly in his 20s.

Two years ago, he noticed his body was not working right. When he went to the doctor, he found out that he had renal immune-complex disease, an auto-immune disease that rapidly deteriorates the kidneys.

“I started getting really tired,” he said. “I’d go to work, shower and go to sleep.”

He began to regularly sleep 16 hours a day and once slept for 21 hours.

Sitting in front of his second bowl of salsa and a massive bowl of tortilla chips, he recounted how he hardly ate for a year before the surgery. At the time, he was taking 26 pills in the morning and 11 at night and making the trip to Strong Memorial twice a week.

His mother, Tina M. Thompson, wanted to donate a kidney to her son but found out she had a low-functioning kidney. Mr. Thompson’s older sister had health problems, and his younger siblings were too young to be organ donors.

Mrs. Berie heard about the family’s predicament through Mr. Thompson’s sister Emily, who was a senior at Sackets Harbor Central at the time. Mrs. Berie said she approached Mrs. Thompson to find out about the family’s next step.

“Not that it was any of my business,” Mrs. Berie said. “I don’t even know why I went. She said, ‘We have to hope someone can donate.’”

Although Mrs. Thompson tried to talk her out of it, Mrs. Berie said, she decided to see whether she could be a match for kidney donation. Three weeks after she completed blood work at Samaritan Medical Center, Watertown, Mrs. Berie received a packet with a list of her numbers and her blood type — O.

After follow-up testing in Rochester, she found out just how well-kept her kidneys were — she said the doctors compared hers to a Marine’s.

“By the end, they said I’m one of the healthiest donors they’ve had,” Mrs. Berie said.

Laughing, she said she had to sign paperwork to say she that was not being paid to donate the kidney. She also was warned that she might get negative feedback from her school or from other parents after the surgery. However, the school district has been very supportive of her decision, she said.

After Mrs. Berie was approved for the donation, her surgery team explained to her and her family exactly what to expect. She said she had never had surgery and was a little nervous.

“They did a great job of explaining it to me,” she said. “They prepared me and my husband pretty well. I just wanted to make sure everything went well — we have a family. We had some reservations, but they said there’s no reason for things to go wrong.”

Mr. Thompson, who never complained at work or to his family about his illness, was more worried about how his former teacher would feel after the surgery.

With the operations complete, Mrs. Berie has one kidney and Mr. Thompson has three. He still has to take pills but is down to 17 in the morning and nine at night. He has to go to the hospital only once a week to get his blood drawn.

“I don’t know if I ever felt this good,” he said.

He said he plans to go to Jefferson Community College, Watertown, in the fall to pursue an associate degree in computer information technology.

His mother said the entire Berie family has been generous to hers. On Monday, the day Mr. Thompson was cleared by doctors to resume drinking coffee, both families joked around like they’ve known each other for years.

The families plan to walk together as Team Kidney Strong at the National Kidney Foundation’s Kidney Walk set for July 28 in Clayton.

“We’re so lucky it went so smoothly,” Mr. Thompson said.

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