By Alan Sorensen
ROCKY BOY It's a relatively new procedure for residents of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. And those who lived through it hope that there will be many more to follow.
It was a kidney transplant necessitated by complications from diabetes, a disease that has reached epidemic proportions at Rocky Boy.
"I think it's only the second kidney transplant that we've had that's been successful," said Sybil Sangrey, director of planning and legislation for Chippewa Cree Tribal Health. The first such surgery also was performed after the Tribe assumed self-governance and took over wrested duties previously performed by Indian Health Service.
Norma Plascencia, who was diagnosed with diabetes about 20 years ago, had to quit as a cook at Rocky Boy Senior Citizens Center about 2 years ago because her kidney was failing. Then last November, just nine days after her mother died of cancer, Plascencia had to begin dialysis.
After a few months of making routine trips to Great Falls for dialysis, it became clear that dialysis wasn't working for Plascencia and that she was in danger of dying.
"It was hard for me to do dialysis," Plascencia said. "My blood pressure would go way down and it would two hours to get it up."
That was when her sister, Rene Denny, stepped in and insisted that Plascencia take one of her kidneys. Of the six children in the LaMere family, Denny was the only one free of diabetes and the only one who could part with a kidney.
Once the decision was made, the two had to undergo several batteries of blood and other tests in February and March. They ended up matching three out of six antigens, good enough for the transplant to proceed.
"If it wasn't for my sister, I don't think I'd live very long," said Plascencia, who also survived a stroke in March. "It will be nice to see my grandchildren grow up."
The surgery was performed on June 9. First they took Denny to surgery where her kidney was removed with laser surgery. Within minutes they had one of her kidneys out and bandaged her up.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," Denny said. "I went in at 7 a.m. and was back upstairs by 11 a.m. Norma went in just before I was done and she was up shortly after."
"Rene tried to walk to my room (the same day), but didn't quite make it," Plascencia said.
"They told me that the sooner you walk the better," Denny said.
Denny spent a lot of time walking before the operation because the doctors had told her that the better shape she was in the easier the operation would be.
"I've been healthy all my life," Denny said. "I lost weight (after the surgery) was the only thing, and that was good."
For her efforts, hospital personnel gave Denny a T-shirt inscribed "Got 2 give 1. I'm a living kidney donor." Three short days after the surgery, Denny was out of the hospital with little fanfare.
"They didn't give me a thing, not even a Band-Aid," Denny said. "They told me, You can go to a motel room.' I was so glad to get out of there. You don't get much rest in a hospital."
Plascencia's surgery was a little more invasive and required a 10-inch incision. "They laid (the kidney) right on top of my bladder left the other one in," she said. "Every once in a while I feel it moving around in there and I know it's working well."
Denny stayed in Spokane to be near her sister until one week after the surgery and then she returned to Havre on Amtrak.
Plascencia said that she was given the choice of having the surgery performed in Portland, Ore., Seattle or Spokane. She opted for Spokane because her daughter lives there.
Plascencia's recovery was just as remarkable, they said.
"They told us that you would have to have a couple of dialysis (after getting a new kidney)," Denny said. "She didn't need any. They said she would have to stay in the hospital for 10 days to three weeks."
Their sister, Sharon Watson, also of Rocky Boy, said this was the first kidney transplant among Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation residents and Chippewa Cree Tribal members.
"Norma's healing so fast," Watson said. "The doctors in Spokane are just amazed because when a person receives a kidney they usually have to give dialysis, but she was OK from the very start."
Even more remarkable perhaps was the doctors' decision to honor Plascencia's request to let her leave the hospital just six days after the surgery.
"My daughter lives way out (away from the hospital), so I got out and went to a motel room," Plascencia said. "I was out two days and went to the doctor and had some more blood tests. He said everything was working nothing was wrong."
That was when Plascencia pleaded her case for returning to Rocky Boy and the comfort of her home and the caring of her family. It was arranged for her to visit a doctor in Great Falls three days a week. It's just two weeks later now, and she comes to Havre instead of Great Falls to have her blood tested. She only has to travel to Great Falls once a week for the next six weeks. After that, she'll have to go every two weeks for a while, then cut back to once a month. She has to return to Spokane in three months to meet with her doctors there.
Today, Plascencia is doing well in recovery at her home on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and has few complaints.
"The only thing is that I'm so weak; I can't seem to get my strength back," Plascencia said. "And I take about 45 pills a day."
Not only does Plascencia take the pills, she has study up on what each one is doing in her body when she takes it. Her four-time-a-day pill regimen is comprised primarily of steroids and antibiotics, both of which she'll be able to cut back on as she gets healthier. And of course, she still has to take her insulin and watch her diet.
The doctors issued Plascencia a couple of other warnings.
"I can't be in the sun very long, have to wear a sun block, because I'm susceptible to cancer," she said. She also has to be careful about catching cold. That necessitates a surgical mask much of the time because of the grandchildren and nieces and nephews who visit.
Both women are extremely grateful to their families and friends at Rocky Boy who supported them, including those who donated to costs associated with the operation. They are particularly pleased with the assistance they received from Chippewa Cree Health Board.
"There were cans around and people donated to us the bingo donated a few dollars," Denny said.
They traveled to Spokane together but had to find other traveling companions for the return trips. Denny was joined by her daughter, Cori, and Plascencia had the company of her granddaughter, Tashina. The two youngsters caught a ride to Spokane with Carl and Rose McElreth, a Baptist minister and his wife who made the trip to visit Denny and Plascencia at their own expense. The couple are trying to establish a Baptist church at Rocky Boy.
Each was greeted by older sister Sharon Watson who hung welcome home signs on the Havre Amtrak depot. Plascencia's daughter-in-law Clarissa and granddaughters Ayanna and Alex had dinner waiting for her. Her son, Hondro, couldn't be there because he was fighting wildfires in Colorado. Denny's son was absent, too, because he was fighting fires in New Mexico.
Plascencia has a new found love of life and appreciation of people.
"A lot of people put their arms around me, I'm so happy to see you alive,'" she said. "You don't realize how much people care until something like this happens.
"Even the drivers who took me to dialysis have came to me before this happened and told me to get better."
Denny said that she is happy that she and her sister, who are just 17 months apart in age and have been close all their lives, are even closer now. She is also pleased by a comment made by her ex-husband.
"He's traditional," she said. "He came to me and said, You just gave life and you'll live to be an old, old lady. God will look on you for that.'"
Both women said they expect their experience to make it possible for others on the reservation in the heart of the Bear Paw Mountains to make the same decision. They are pleased for a cousin who will be going in for a new kidney in July.
"What the receiver receives is something you can't describe," Plascencia said. "The feeling of life is something."
Plascencia's next big event, she said, will be the sobriety walk at the 36th annual Rocky Boy's Powwow the first weekend in August.
"My goal is to walk the sobriety walk at the powwow, but the doctor hasn't given me permission yet to walk," she said.