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Transplant surgeon has someone else's kidney

By Dr. Silke Niederhaus, Special to CNN
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Wed August 7, 2013
  • Dr. Silke Niederhaus was diagnosed with kidney failure when she was 8 years old
  • When she was 11, her kidneys shut down completely and she needed a transplant
  • Her body rejected the new kidney several times before accepting it
  • Niederhaus decided to become a transplant surgeon in the United States

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week we introduce you Dr. Silke Niederhaus, a transplant surgeon who has a very personal connection to the patients she operates on.

(CNN) -- The first few years of my life were quite uneventful. But during the summer after my second grade year, I became ill with a sore throat. A few weeks after I was diagnosed with kidney failure.

At the time, it felt like a death sentence to me and my parents.

For the next three years, my life became preoccupied with daily medications, blood pressure checks, weekly blood draws and many hospital admissions and procedures.

I continued to attend school as I was able and with great interest began to study the human body -- anatomy and physiology especially. I learned everything I could about kidneys and dialysis and, later, the immune system.

At 11 years old, my kidneys completely shut down, and I began peritoneal dialysis. I was one of the younger patients to perform this type of dialysis on myself, as it requires learning sterile techniques.

A few months later, I was placed on the waiting list for a transplant. By December 22 of that year, a kidney became available. I took the offer immediately, even though it would mean missing Christmas.

I spent the holidays in the hospital, then experienced three rejection episodes within the first six weeks after transplant. The last one was so severe that doctors recommended removing the kidney surgically or trying an experimental new drug that might kill me. Because surgery had been very painful, I chose the new drug. The side effects almost killed me, but after two days in intensive care I got better.

A few days later even the kidney began to recover.

Over the next few years, we carefully monitored the kidney's function, always concerned that one day my immune system would reject the kidney again and destroy it completely. But 24 years later, this kidney has helped me go through high school, college, medical school, a 7-year surgical residency training program -- working 60- to 80-hour weeks -- and a two-year transplant fellowship, at times going without sleep for two to three days at a time.

Two things allowed me to excel through this illness: My faith that God would make everything work out, and my unshakable determination to become a transplant surgeon myself.

Everyone I encountered discouraged this career choice.

"It's too hard," "You won't get enough sleep," and "Why don't you try to get a normal job, where you work 40 hours a week?" were frequently heard. I could never seriously entertain these suggestions. Instead, I studied as hard as I could, and last summer accomplished my goal of becoming a transplant surgeon.

Naturally it helped tremendously to have a supportive family and mentors along the way.

To anyone suffering from an unexpected illness, or disability, things seem hopeless in the beginning, as if all dreams and hopes of a future have come to an end. But if you can find a goal that is exciting, and work towards that goal, living life becomes a joy again.

Ultimately many others benefit from your perseverance.

So, dream big!

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