Chris Telewicz of Red Lion donated his kidney on June 2 to help save Alex Harper, 16, of Dallastown who was battling Stage 4 chronic kidney disease. York Daily Record
At first, she thought maybe it was a joke. Her husband was always being silly — cracking jokes, constantly making her laugh. And as she looked down at the text message on her phone, she thought Chris was doing just that.
“What would you say if I said I wanted to give my kidney to a kid,” the message read.
Wendy Telewicz didn’t reply to her husband immediately. She was at work and, frankly, didn’t take the inquiry seriously.
But as the day went on, and she continued to think it over, she had a feeling that her husband, Chris Telewicz, was serious.
So, the only reasonable response she had for her husband when she returned to their Red Lion home that night was simple.
“It would be a kid’s miracle,” she said.
And that’s exactly what it was for Alex Kepner.
The 17-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 4 chronic kidney disease at the beginning of his junior year at Dallastown Area High School. He was on the transplant waiting list for over a year, and his kidneys were operating between 14 to 18 percent and getting worse as time went on.
Alex was not on dialysis, which his mother, Jennifer Fink, said would have made him weaker, but he was getting dangerously close to needing it, leaving Fink to wonder: How much longer can her son wait for a transplant?
Finally, she took matters into her own hands and began campaigning for a kidney. She had business cards made up and posted her pleas on social media constantly.
“All the medication was doing was buying him time,” Fink said. “And as a parent, I felt like I needed to do more.”
Chris was at work when he saw a post from Jennifer on Facebook. A member of his church shared it on her page, and it struck a chord with him.
He thought back to a conversation he had with his wife Wendy, just a few weeks prior.
“We had a discussion in the car,” Chris recalled. “I felt like I needed to do something. My job — I’m a plumber — and I feel like I don’t really… I don’t feel like I’m actually helping anybody doing that work. And I always told her I felt like I needed to do something different.”
“Like an EMT or a doctor — I mean, I’m not smart enough to be a doctor,” Chris joked. “But something that’s gonna be — a servant that’s gonna help somebody save a life.”
He knew there could be bit of discomfort when he volunteered to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger.
But in the wider realm of life, does that really matter?
“All of us have been 17 once, and I mean you know how it is to experience being 16 or 17 years old,” Chris said. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”
Chris wanted to help give Alex a future, and Wendy got on board, standing beside him.
“We’re faithful people. God works in mysterious ways,” she said. “And if he was putting this on my husband’s heart, who am I to say, ‘No, please don’t.'”
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‘I wasn’t worried about the health risks’
When you decide to donate your kidney to someone, it’s not exactly a simple process.
“The hospital, they really put him through it with testing and history,” Wendy said. “They were not taking a kidney from someone if there was a chance they were going to have problems.”
There were a lot of blood tests, MRIs and a genetic match.
“I thought it was going to be harder than it actually is,” Chris said. “That there would be more steps than it actually was. It wasn’t that bad.”
Sure, Chris knew his blood type was O+, the same as Alex. But that didn’t guarantee the two would be a match.
“I wasn’t worried about the health risks. I was worried if it was going to be a match or not,” Chris started saying before being interrupted by his wife.
“Chris’ fear the whole time was getting this kid’s hopes up and it not going through,” his wife interjected. He shook his head in response to Wendy. She was staring at him from across the patio table in their backyard. “I was the one just concerned for Chris and I didn’t want to let this kid down either.”
After 40 vials of blood and numerous tests, Chris was told he was a match, and on Valentine’s Day Alex’s doctors from Hershey Medical Center called Fink to tell her the good news: Her son was getting a kidney.
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Alex Kepner has been fighting kidney failure for over a year. He recently found a living donor! York Daily Record
A delay to the plans
The surgery was scheduled for April 21. It seemed like after months of waiting and worrying, Alex and Fink would soon have some relief — and a new kidney.
Then, COVID-19 happened.
With less than three weeks to go before surgeons were set to administer the kidney transplant, the coronavirus outbreak prompted them to delay the operation.
At that point, Chris and Wendy had not contacted Alex. Chris was nervous about reaching out the mother-son duo too soon.
“I didn’t want to get the boy’s hopes, Alex’s hopes up,” Chris said. “Because you don’t know what could happen before that surgery.”
But when the surgery was delayed, Wendy’s motherly instincts kicked in.
“I was thinking about it at work and I was thinking about the mom and just ‘Oh my goodness, she’s gotta be a wreck,'” Wendy said. “And I said I think we should reach out to her. I know she’s afraid that we’re going to back out because of COVID.”
So Chris took to Facebook and sent Fink a message.
“He said something like, ‘Jennifer, don’t worry,” Fink remembers. “Tell Alex, I’m still in.”
And so, the new surgery date was set for June 2.
The day of the transplant
It was Wendy and Chris’ seven-year wedding anniversary the day Chris checked into the hospital for the surgery. The two originally planned to celebrate over a nice vacation, but instead they spent it separated.
COVID restrictions kept Wendy out of the hospital until the day of the transplant.
When she was able to get to the hospital, she was confronted with her nerves. She thought she’d be surrounded by family on this day, people to keep her distracted. But instead, she had to wait alone — occupying herself with her cell phone and trying to respond to all the family members asking for an update on Chris.
In a similar fashion somewhere else in the hospital, Fink said she was nervously drinking coffee by the gallon and pacing the halls of the hospital.
“There was definitely anxiety in the air,” Fink said. “No one can be totally calm while their kid is having major surgery.”
Fink wasn’t the only one concerned about Alex. Wendy can recall the first words her husband spoke as he began to wake up from his own operation.
“When he was being rolled out of surgery, still very weak and in pain, coming in the door,” Wendy remembers, “his first words from his mouth were, ‘How’s Alex? Is he done surgery? Is he OK?'”
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‘He gave my child an organ. He saved his life.’
Alex came out of surgery after about seven hours, Fink said.
Doctors told her the kidney was working great, but Alex would need to be on a breathing tube for the next 24 hours.
“Having to watch Alex struggle against a breathing tube is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve experienced as a mother so far,” Fink said. “Was definitely a bit jarring to see him intubated with all the lines going into him and coming off of him.”
Fink and Alex spent seven days in the hospital before he was strong enough to return home. However, due to complications with his medication, he was back within a day and a half for another three days.
“He had to be kept overnight for observation, but things turned out OK,” Fink said over a video call.
Alex sat close beside her. He was quiet for the most part, still recovering and tired.
“I don’t remember a lot about my stay in the hospital,” Alex said. “But that’s kind of a relief.”
Now, Alex just has to focus on recovering. He needs to completely rebuild his immune system and will be out of school until January at least, his mother said.
The recovery process for Chris is a bit different. He’s already back up and walking — he’s required to walk at least 150 steps a day — but for four to six weeks he’s not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk.
So for now, he’s been lounging around the house, often accompanied by his four dogs. He and Wendy are eager for him to get back to their normal, active lifestyle.
And even though their roads to recovery are quite different, Alex and Chris are both looking forward to the chance to meet one another.
“We can’t wait to meet Chris and his wife,” Fink said. “I mean, I would love to say, ‘Thank you,’ but how do you even begin to thank this person? ‘Thank you’ is just so generic. He gave my child an organ — he saved his life.”
“I really don’t think about that right now, as being a life saver,” Chris started saying before being interrupted by his wife.
“Well, I mean you saved a kid’s life,” Wendy said, shaking her head at her husband.
Chris shifted in his chair on their patio, “Yeah I know, but…”
“No, you did,” Wendy interrupted one last time.
Sam Ruland is the Pennsylvania issues reporter for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network, covering all aspects of life in Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com, 717-654-8779 and follow her on Twitter @sam_ruland.
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