Jefferson University Hospitals

Berch and Vallerie's Living Donor Kidney Transplant a Success

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"They made it a little bit easier to deal with the process"

Though the heart is the universal symbol for love, for this South Jersey couple, the kidney might be a more fitting representation of their shared affection, perseverance and faith. After all, they met through a dialysis center and carried out months of at-home hemodialysis (HD). And when Berch Harris finally required a kidney transplant, his wife, Vallerie Armstrong-Harris, was a perfect match.

Berch's journey to transplantation began in 2001. Due to lapses in his health insurance coverage, his high blood pressure had gone untreated—damaging his kidneys and landing him in the hospital. In February 2002, he started HD in a dialysis center. From 2002 to 2005, he regained kidney function and went off dialysis on two separate occasions. But because he was still unable to get blood pressure medication, his kidneys failed again.

It was during his stint at the dialysis center that he first met Vallerie Armstrong. As Facility Administrator, she was responsible for following up with any patients who had missed a treatment. ("She used to harass me about missing my treatment," Berch says.)

It wasn't until 2005—when Berch stopped by the center with some information about a product that had helped him regain kidney function—that the two connected on a different level.

"It happened to be her last day at the center, so she gave me her number," Berch recalls. "The relationship took off from there." The pair began dating in 2006 and married on December 8, 2007 in a destination wedding in Barbados, where Berch was born.

Along the way, they persevered through at-home HD made possible by NxStage Medical equipment. Though home-based dialysis afforded the couple more flexibility, it was also a great deal of work.

"We did it five or six days a week for two-and-a-half to three hours a day," Vallerie recalls. "I was the technician, the nurse, everything. I had to draw labs on a monthly basis. It was like our own little clinic." When the couple flew to Barbados to wed, they had to bring along 20 boxes of dialysis equipment and supplies, as well as the dialysis machine.

With his history of regaining function, Berch remained optimistic that his kidney would once again kick in. But those hopes were dashed when doctors found a cancerous tumor on his left kidney. That's when he and Vallerie knew it was time to get serious about transplantation.

After having his left kidney removed in July 2008, Berch and Vallerie moved forward with their plan to pursue live donor transplant. As Berch explains, they'd been tested in October 2007 and knew they were a match.

"But I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if something happened to her," Berch says. "That would have been worse than being on dialysis."

For her part, however, Vallerie viewed transplantation as a clear choice: "I was a perfect match, and I have two kidneys that are both working. Why can't I give one to someone who really needs it?"

After completing the extensive testing process at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, she was confirmed to be a good candidate. She lauds nephrologist Dr. Pooja Singh and social worker Carla Levins for helping to explain everything throughout the process.

"Everyone at Jefferson was really nice—very warm and very knowledgeable," she notes. "They made it a little bit easier to deal with the process."

On February 17, 2009, Dr. Costas Lallas performed a robotic nephrectomy on Vallerie. Dr. Carlo Ramirez (a "fabulous human being," Vallerie says) transplanted her kidney to Berch. During and after the operation, the couple has enjoyed tremendous support from their family—including Vallerie's children, Jonathan and Joya, from a previous marriage and her aunt, Claire Edwards, who came and stayed with them for six weeks after their surgeries.

"We're very blessed that we have been afforded this opportunity. Life has been really great," Vallerie says. "It was great before, though. We're not complainers. It's just better now, and it will continue to get better."

Berch—who believes mental strength was the key to beating kidney disease—is now incorporating their experiences into his work with Christ International Ministries Inc. (CIMI). Just as important, Vallerie says they're doing everything they can to eat right and stay fit—so they can continue to be healthy and strong. And now that all their essentials fit easily into a couple of carry-on bags, they're also enjoying travel back to Barbados and other destinations.

For more information about receiving a kidney transplant or being a living kidney donor, please call 1-888-955-TRAN.