One in a million: Bre Eichelberg finds matching kidney donor in husband

By: 
Jill Meier, Journal editor

Beating the odds, Mason Eichelberg was found to be a match for his wife, Bre, who is in need of a kidney transplant due to another rare disease, anti-gbm. The transplant was scheduled for July 27. Jill Meier/BV Journal

Bre and Mason Eichelberg are defying the odds.

Take, for instance, that the two may have never met had Mason, 29, not worked for the same employer nine years ago as Bre’s father, Dan Gannon.

Secondly, Bre, 27, is one in 2 million individuals to be diagnosed with the rare lung disease, anti-gbm, which has caused her need now for a kidney transplant.

And while the disease is rare enough to be diagnosed with itself, finding a matching kidney donor also presents extensive odds. But add to the fact that Bre’s husband is the matching donor, is yet another astonishing odd they’ve defied: one in a million.

“I never imagined it would be Mason,” Bre admits.

After learning of his matching donor status, Mason said he explored online the odds of it happening.

“The one page I found, it didn’t give a number to it, but it said having your husband or your spouse be your kidney donor is like riding a bus, falling in love with the person you sit next to and having them donate their kidney to you. You know, it’s just pretty slim,” he said.

Bre’s path to Tuesday’s kidney transplant began a year ago next month on yet another memorable occasion: the couple’s first-year wedding anniversary.

It was a year ago that Bre was continually throwing up, felt tired and sick, and was gaining unexplained weight.

“I wasn’t myself at all,” she recalled.

But she shrugged off the ill feelings, thinking it was her anxiety and eventually she would get better. As for the weight gain, she believed her recent diagnosis of a thyroid issue was to blame.

“They all saw weight was just coming on and I really wasn’t eating, and when I did eat, I would throw up,” she said

“This went on for an extended period of time,” Mason adds. “A month and a half, two months probably.”

But it wasn’t until Bre’s mom, Pam Gannon stopped by their home on the evening of Aug. 21. She was adamant that Bre be checked out by a physician.

“She finally talked me into going to acute care,” Bre said. “I kept telling her, ‘No, I’m fine. It’s the stomach flu or something, I’ll get over it.’ Thank God she talked me into going because my potassium was at a lethal level, an 8, and my creatine for my kidney function was at a 38, and it’s supposed to be below one.”

The couple spent their first wedding anniversary in the hospital, at which time she was diagnosed with anti-gbm, which by now had not only taken its toll on her lungs, but her kidneys, too.

“I must have gotten bronchitis or pneumonia, which kick-started the entire disease,” Bre later learned, adding that an illness has to trigger it (anti-gbm) to show up.

The disease, as Mason tells, is largely relegated to individuals between the ages of 25 and 30. 

“And it’s normally males,” Bre said.

Well-engrossed in the disease for nearly a year now, Mason explains how anti-gbm affects the tissue.

“Your lungs and kidneys are like small little tubes, and what the disease does is it plugs them permanently, and once you lose that you can’t get it back,” he said.

Unfortunately, Bre’s case was not detected soon enough.

“Until it was way too late,” Mason said.

In all total, Bre shed about 30 pounds since her symptoms first began. Most of her weight gain was fluid.

“She was in the hospital a couple of times for not being able to breathe because there was fluid overloaded,” Mason said.

“The water would sit,” adds Bre. “They said normally when you get fluid overloaded in kidney patients, the water will sit on your heart and then on your lungs and your heart will beat rapidly and then you won’t be able to breathe, and that’s when you start coughing up blood, which I did at one time.”

 

Praying for a match

With his wife in need of a kidney, Mason didn’t hesitate to be tested to be her donor match. Her mom and friends also stepped up to be tested, Bre said. Their results, however, remain a mystery.

“They can tell me that they signed up to be tested, but doctors won’t tell you who was tested,” she said.

“We don’t really know how many did (get tested). They won’t even give you a number of how many people they are testing, because it’s a violation of privacy. They wouldn’t even tell her my stuff, because I have to relay it (because of HIPPA),” Mason said.

Last week, at one of their final meetings with the transplant coordinator before Tuesday’s surgery, Mason said he was asked multiple times if he was sure he wanted to proceed with the donation.

“I was asked that so many times today,” he tells. “They kept asking, ‘Are you sure? Do you still want to go through with it?’”

His answer was always the same: “Yes, it’s not changing. The only way it’s not going to happen is if some test (changes) or something.”

In the months leading up to Tuesday’s kidney donation and transplant, Bre underwent plasma freezes for four to six months, which was done to clear the hemorrhaging that was in the bottom of her lungs. She also underwent home chemotherapy and was blasted with two large doses of a drug to shock her lung function to rid her body of gbm antibodies, which doctors have been monitoring as the focus turned to her kidney function.

 

Mason is her match

Waiting to learn if he was a compatible donor for his wife was the hard part, Mason confides. And when Tuesday – the day the coordinator said she would be calling – came and went with no call, he was disappointed.

It was on his drive home from work on Thursday tof that week that Mason’s disappointment surfaced once again.

“It was 4:50, 4:55, and I’m like, ‘Great, they’re not going to call me again. I’m going to have to wait until next Tuesday,’” he tells.

Then his phone rang.

“It was her and she had a happy voice,” he remembers. “She said, ‘It all came back negative,’ which is what you want for this test, ‘so we’re going to send you to a committee of doctors, who has to approve it.’”

For a second time, the Eichelberg’s patience was tested as they awaited for yet another call. 

The following Tuesday, once again on Mason’s drive home from work, he received the call they’d been anxiously awaiting. Mason was officially approved as Bre’s matching donor by the committee.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I was blown away. 

 

How they met

Mason and Bre’s paths crossed in a surprising way, as Mason explains.

“I worked with her dad at Burger King, and her dad’s co-worker one day said, ‘Hey, have you ever met Dan’s daughter?’ and then made this purring noise. Her dad goes, ‘No, and he never will.’ But her dad went home and told the story to Bre and her mom and then she looked me up on Facebook,” he said.

Their first date was a trip to the top of the tower overlooking Aspen Park, and both say they knew immediately that Cupid had struck.

Although anxious to wed, the couple dated for seven years before saying their “I do’s” nearly two years ago.

“I told her we weren’t getting married until she graduated college, so I proposed to her the day she graduated from college,” Mason said.

 

Looking forward to normalcy

The past year has certainly been a roller coaster year for the Eichelbergs. 

“I can’t wait to go out to eat whatever we want after COVID, because her diet right now is pretty strict,” Mason said, as Bre lists off her dietary restrictions: low phosphorus, low-sodium, low potassium, no chocolate, cheese or dairy.

“When she was first diagnosed, they said, ‘as low phosphorus, as low potassium, as low as sodium as you possibly can.’ OK, challenge accepted. We did it but you don’t buy anything without salt, and that’s super hard,” Mason said. “Everything has salt in it.”

“And expensive,” adds Bre. “We did not realize all of the hidden ingredients (until you look for them).”

Soon after Bre’s dietary restrictions were in place, she began experiencing severe migraine headaches. 

“We ended up 12 to 13 times in the ER for migraines, and it was always at night,” Mason said.

Her migraines were tamed by morphine, but they continued, so the Eichelbergs attempted to find the source themselves. And it turns out, not digesting enough sodium was causing the migraines.

“The doctor didn’t agree,” Bre said.

While her physician didn’t agree with their self-diagnosis, a nurse advised them to experiment, with a healthy dose of popcorn and other sodium-infused foods, Bre’s migraines stopped.

 

Leading up the transplant

As the days narrowed down to Tuesday’s transplant, the Eichelbergs were largely contained to home, and Mason had to endure a laxative drink, similar to that of prepping for a colonoscopy.

“They’re moving your organs, they’re not moving mine,” Bre reminds.

Last week, the couple underwent their final antibody test, anticipating no changes from the prior test. 

“I asked how many times they have seen this change from the first one if you’ve already passed the first one to the second one, and she said, ‘I’ve been here for 10 years and never seen one come back different,’” Mason said. “Don’t let me be the one.”

A COVID-19 test, which everyone now undergoes prior to surgery, was scheduled for last Friday.

“After that, as long as everything comes back negative, then we’re smooth sailing,” Mason said.

Mason was scheduled to be wheeled into surgery at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday and Bre would follow about 10 a.m. Bre said her husband’s surgery is a bit more invasive than hers.

‘For me, they keep my kidneys, and they’ll put the new one up front here,” she said. “For him, they’ll have to move all his organs to get back to his kidneys, which are in the back, so his surgery is a little bit more invasive than mine.”

Bre’s recuperation time is six to 12 weeks, and Mason is expected to need three to six weeks. After just having started a new job in maintenance at Year ‘Round Brown, he doesn’t have any PTO time accumulated yet.

And that’s what led Bre’s mother to set up a Go Fund Me account for the young newlyweds.

The kind gesture, they agree, is humbling.

“Seeing the amount of people (who’ve donated), it’s like, ‘wow,’” Bre said.

Adds Mason, “There’s some people on there that I don’t know who they are and then we have to look on Facebook, and see, ‘Oh, they’re friends with … it blows me away.’ I never would imagine we would have to set up a Go Fund Me, but that’s one thing they stress when we first started going in for the transplant is that you have to do fundraising.”

As the couple begins their post-surgery recoveries, they will recuperate in separate wings of the hospital. Bre said that was done intentionally.

“They said they did that so if we want to see each other, we have to get up and walk,” she said, adding the precaution also helps to lessen confusion of meds with two patients with the same last name.

Bre’s parents, Mason’s mother and Bre’s grandmother have stepped up to help the couple once they’re released from the hospital. Her parents live across the street from them and her grandmother is going to take up temporary residency in their home for the first couple of weeks.

“We have a ton of support when it comes to that,” Mason assures.

 

They encourage organ donation

Prior to Tuesday’s transplant, the donor box on both of their driver’s licenses were checked. Bre, however, can no longer be a donor because of her auto-immune disease.

“I strongly encourage people to look at donation, kidney donation, any sort of donation,” Mason said. “Like they were saying today, the amount of deceased donors is slowly declining, so we need to make that up somewhere, so living donation (should be considered).”

 

Hopes of starting a family

Mason is quick to admit that he wants kids as soon as possible.

The couple says they were trying prior to her diagnosis and physicians have told them they can start trying again a year after the transplant. She is advised to let her physician know when she becomes pregnant because of the anti-rejection meds she is currently prescribed and will be taking. 

“They are very high-risk for birth defects,” Bre informs. “If I had become pregnant during this, I would have had to do a very intensive dialysis every single day, where right now I’m only having to do it five days instead of seven, so it’s been nice to get those little breaks.”

As the couple takes a moment to reflect on the past year, with a pause, Bre says, “It’s been a year.”

“It’s been a crazy year for sure,” Mason agrees.

Yet, they’re happy to know that their second wedding anniversary likely won’t be celebrated in the hospital, but at home, where they’ll be recuperating together.

Almost in unison, they say, “We hope so.”

 

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