Recovering from a life changing surgery: Susan's story

CINCINNATI - Less then 24 hours after coming out of surgery, I needed to do something. I needed to visit Susan to see how she was faring now that she had a new kidney.

We were both swollen, sore and pumped full of pain killers. Yet seeing Susan sitting up in her hospital bed - a feat considering her midsection was cut wide open the day before - is worth every step.

She's barely through surgery, yet already the kidney is working and filtering the toxins out of her body.

"I'm feeling better. I am," said Susan. "I mean, I'm not going to be climbing mountains anytime soon..."

Nearly four months later, Susan Winkler stared across from me at a table at her workplace, The Great Wolf Lodge in Mason. Her cheeks are flushed. Her skin coloring is good. She is smiling.

"How are things?" I asked.

"Things are awesome. They're really good," Susan replied. "I've been back to work about six weeks. Came back four weeks early. So that's how good the recovery went. Doctors are pleased with all my numbers, all my blood work. So, it's gone very well. Knock on wood."

Just prior to the surgery, Susan had told me that she felt good. That despite being in kidney failure, she was well. Four months after the surgery, Susan admitted, "I lied."

Before the surgery, Susan didn't want to admit that her kidney failure was literally making her sick to her stomach. She wasn't eating much. She was barely sleeping. Her mornings started with an hour of vomiting.

"It got to the point that it was almost a daily thing with being sick all the time," Winkler said. "And if I slept more than two hours at a time, that was a lot."

And there were times, Susan admits, in the weeks after the surgery that she regretted her decision. The pain of the surgery. The constant prodding and poking by doctors, nurses and technicians. The utter exhaustion of a body recovering from major surgery.

But the days and weeks passed, and I asked, "How are things now? How are you feeling?"

"I feel great," she said. "I mean, I thought I felt okay before, but three or four weeks after the surgery, when you finally start feeling better, you really notice the difference. Your energy level. You actually start sleeping. You can eat and not have to worry about it coming back up. It was a big shock to me because I didn't realize how bad I felt until I actually started feeling good."

There is another side effect of the surgery. Prior to it, Susan liked peanut butter, but nothing more. Now, I have a near obsession with peanut butter. And so does Susan.

"They laugh at me in the kitchen sometimes because they're like, 'what do you want us to fix you for dinner tonight?' And I'm like, I want peanut butter and celery," laughed Winkler. "And they laugh. And so they give me this big bowl of peanut butter and celery and it's your fault."

She realizes, a peanut butter addiction is a price worth paying for feeling better. For having a future that doesn't involve hours every other day sitting at a hospital enduring the pain of dialysis. Instead, she's looking forward to working out, now that her doctors have cleared her to do so. She's planning a hiking trip soon to Hocking Hills. She hiked before the surgery, but now she can do it and feel well.

There is one last health hurdle for Susan. It was childhood diabetes that destroyed her kidneys. She still has diabetes. She's now in line to get a pancreas transplant. And if she gets it, she will no longer be diabetic. That means no more insulin shots. No more finger sticks. Yet Susan thought long and hard before deciding, just days ago, that she will go forth with that transplant surgery. After all, the financial cost is high on a single woman. And while the long term physical rewards will be great, in the near term, the idea of another surgery is daunting. But she says she is going forth with the pancreas transplant too.

In the meantime, Susan is happy to live her life outdoors, at work and dream of vacations in countries far away.

"I've got my life back, so this is my second go-round on this rock," Winkler said. "So I'm gonna make the best of it. Do everything I didn't do the first time."

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