MISSOULA - Two people reached out to us at the beginning of January to find one solution — how to get a kidney transplant.
Out of the 174 Montanas on the organ transplant waiting list as of December 2022, 141 of them needed a kidney transplant, according to LifeCenter Northwest.
Only 51 Montanans received a kidney transplant in 2022, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) says the Montana Medicaid program has only covered on average about four kidney transplants per year from 2020 to 2022.
This leaves the others relying on private insurance or paying out of pocket for the transplant surgery and travel expenses.
Montana residents in need of an organ transplant must travel out of state because the state doesn't have a medical facility to do those surgeries.
Lewis and Fellin are both on dialysis until they gather all that’s required to move forward with the surgery. The two have different circumstances but one goal.
Lewis was born with polycystic kidney disease and found out the condition had taken a turn for the worse after an unrelated hospital visit last year.
“It’s where your kidneys form cists,” Lewis said. “And sometimes, I’ve had some the size of a softball, and when they burst it poisons your blood. I have almost died three times from that.”
Lewis started dialysis in February 2022 and has since built an at-home clinic.
“Every night when I lay down to go to bed, my last thought is I have to get up in the morning and do [hemodialysis],” Lewis said. “And it’s not like a little needle. These are 16-gauge needles. They are bigger than a toothpick, almost like one of those turkey injectors.”
She said doing dialysis five days a week for nearly three hours takes an emotional toll on her but she “does what she has to do to live” for her family and community.
“People here cared so much,” she said. “It’s like you can not care about yourself because everybody else cares, too. You don’t wanna let anybody down.”
Lewis is on a quest to get to Washington State for a kidney transplant.
She said she has a donor and insurance coverage for the surgery, but it’s the travel expenses to get there that are causing a roadblock.
“In my mind, I’m young,” Lewis said. “I have got a whole life to live. And I’m ready to live it. And I would hate to think that money could keep me from living, but essentially, that’s what it is.”
She remains hopeful that she’ll be able to reach her goal of $8,000-$10,000 for travel expenses to get the transplant done in Washington State.
Anyone interested in donating to Lewis’ travel expenses can do so by going to the website for Help Hope Live.
“As a non-profit organization, our focus is to fundraise. We have people with pretty substantial and catastrophic medical conditions who come to us for help,” said Kelly Green, executive director of Help Hope Live. “What we do is protect individuals. We protect a donor so the donor can make a donation and feel fully confident that those funds will only be used for medical and medical-related purposes.”
Fellin is a software engineer manager at OnX in Missoula who is on the kidney transplant waiting list. The average wait time for a kidney transplant ranges from three to five years, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
“It’s not just like a first-in-line kind of situation because every body is different and each kidney doesn't match everybody,” Fellin said.
He was born with IGA nephropathy, an autoimmune disease that progresses over the years and causes kidney failure. Fellin’s kidney function started to decline around the fall of 2022.
“I essentially just had to get to a point of acceptance and surrender,” Fellin said.
After the initial panic, Fellin said he was trained to do peritoneal dialysis at home.
“It’s just sort of a drag on your life to be on dialysis, basically,” Fellin said. “It’s a lot of effort and energy. It’s almost like a part-time job.”
He said he draws his motivation to continue the exhausting process from the relationships in his life.
Fellin is a husband and father who enjoys building legos with his 5-year-old son in his spare time.
As his campaign to find a donor continues, he said he has experienced massive support from people he least expected.
“We told everybody about the campaign at work and a few of my coworkers signed up. I was really touched by that,” Fellin said.
Jason is searching for a kidney donor and is planning to get the transplant surgery in Washington.
He voiced the challenge of finding a matching donor who’s actually willing to go through with the process and due to it being a major request.
“The potential to change someone’s life is such a powerful thing. If you do come forward, you’d have that feeling of impacting someone’s life basically forever,” Fellin said.
Anyone interested in connecting with Fellin can learn more at his website DancingKidneys.com.
Both Lewis and Fellin have made arrangements to get their kidney transplants completed in Washington state at different facilities.