Pregnant kidney transplant recipient thrives on defying expectations

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 
photoLinda Rigert donated a kidney to her daughter Jennifer Browning. Rigert said the transplant surgery has made her life better because she pays closer attention to her own health.

She wasn't supposed to survive.

Jennifer Browning grew up hearing those words.

When she was 1 year old, Browning contracted E. coli. The infection caused her kidneys to fail, sparking the need for dialysis treatment.

How to become an organ donor

• Code your driver's license, permit or ID card as a donor.

• Sign up on the donor registry at Donate Life.

• Request a paper form at 800-452-1369.

After four months, the toddler's kidneys began to function on their own again. But the scar tissue meant she would eventually need a kidney transplant.

For the next 20 years, Browning led a normal, active life. She traveled, played sports, moved to Los Angeles.

But by the time she was about 24 years old, Browning's kidney function had declined to the point of needing a transplant.

"I immediately raised my hand," said Linda Rigert, Browning's mother. "And I was a match."

Organ transplant facts

Every 11 minutes a new name is added to the United Network for Organ Sharing waiting list.

As of this month, more than 126,600 people in the U.S. are on the organ waiting list. More than 101,100 of those people are waiting for a kidney transplant.

In Washington, nearly 2,000 people are on the organ waiting list.

Source: United Network for Organ Sharing

Browning and Rigert underwent surgery June 3, 1997.

Prior to the surgery, Browning was in denial about her health. She didn't think she was sick.

But after the transplant, Browning changed her thinking.

"I realized what it was like to be healthy," she said.

Her fingernails no longer had a blue tint. Her skin wasn't itchy. She no longer needed to pull over to take a nap while driving to work.

Browning jumped back into her life at full speed. Three weeks after surgery, she was back at work. Soon after that, she resumed her swimming routine.

"It just seems like I didn't miss a beat," she said.

In the years that followed, though, Browning came to the realization that while she was alive, she wasn't really living. She had never pictured her life beyond the transplant. Once she reached post-transplant life, she was left wondering: "What now?"

Browning moved back to Vancouver and started a career as a respiratory therapist. One night, while working in a hospital intensive care unit, Browning watched as an organ donor coordinator worked with a family whose loved one had recently died.

Browning was captivated and applied for a donation coordinator position with Pacific Northwest Transplant Bank. She was hired in March 2007.

"It's kind of ironic where life leads you," Browning said. "You just end up where you're supposed to."

Browning also started competing in swimming races. But not just any swimming races, the U.S. Transplant Games and World Transplant Games. She collected a "big wad of medals" in her three Games appearances but, more importantly, she became part of the bigger transplant community, she said.

"What an amazing gathering of people it is," Browning said.

Browning, now 40, has always lived a healthy, active life -- even with her foreign kidney. Her good health is what prompted doctors to give Browning and her husband, Scott, the green light to have a baby. She got the go-ahead even though transplant recipients are at higher risk for hypertension and other complications during pregnancy, Browning said.

Browning is now eight months' pregnant with the couple's first son -- an experience she never expected.

"I assumed my entire life I wouldn't be able to (have kids)," Browning said. "I just assumed I wouldn't have a long life, so why would I have kids?"

Since the transplant, though, Browning has been living without limitations. She keeps looking for the limit, the breaking point, but she hasn't found it. And she hopes she never does.

"You survive these things to live," Browning said. "The point is to live your life."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.