By Sam Jack
Viola resident Dixie Selenke, a Conway Springs native and Cheney Post Office employee, has been friends with Robin Hutto for 28 years. The two met when Hutto moved to Kansas with her husband, Larry, who served as pastor for the since-closed Viola Gospel Lighthouse church.
When the Huttos moved to take up a pulpit in Blackville, S.C., Selenke and her husband followed, living in South Carolina from 2006 to 2010 before returning to Viola.
Hutto and Selenke kept their friendship going with phone calls, letters, emails and text messages in the years that followed.
That meant that Selenke saw in detail how Hutto’s life changed after her kidneys started to fail about four years ago. The need for frequent dialysis sapped Hutto’s energy and limited her ability to travel.
In early August 2017, Hutto decided she had had enough of dialysis. She approached family and friends, seeking to raise $5,000 needed to start the process of becoming a kidney transplant recipient at Duke Medical Center in North Carolina.
Soon after seeing a fundraising webpage that a friend posted on Hutto’s behalf, Selenke decided to find out whether she would be a suitable kidney donor for her best friend.
“I went online and filled out a medical survey; that was the preliminary step,” Selenke said. “Then they said, ‘OK, you’re good so far, so the next step is to get some blood testing done.’”
Selenke had blood drawn at a lab in Wichita. Her blood type was A+, while Hutto’s was O+, but that did not stop the process. The Duke Medical Center is one of a few hospitals in the country that can determine whether kidneys with different blood types might still match.
On Oct. 6, Selenke got the call from Duke, letting her know that her kidney was a definite match for Hutto.
“I got to make the call to Robin to tell her,” Selenke said. “That was pretty exciting, and we cried. Since we were different blood types, we weren’t sure if we would still be compatible, but we went forward with the hope that we would be. It was an awesome day.”
Next, Selenke needed to travel to Duke Medical Center for two days of in-person testing. Community members quickly stepped up to cover the cost of the trip.
“My daughter put it out on Facebook and said, ‘My mom needs to get to Duke Medical Center.’ Within an hour or two, an anonymous donor contacted my husband and said, ‘I want to buy her a plane ticket.’ My daughter and her friend set up a bake sale in Conway Springs, and it was overwhelmingly successful. People gave money and mailed checks; it was just overwhelming,” Selenke said.
Over two early-November days at Duke, Selenke learned more about her health than she had ever known – and the news was all good. Thanks to her overall health and the support network provided by her husband, five children and 19 grandchildren, she remained an excellent candidate to donate her kidney to Hutto.
The transplant procedure was scheduled for Dec. 4. For her return trip to North Carolina, Selenke got financial help from a nonprofit called the National Living Donor Assistance Center. She was also grateful to her colleagues at the Cheney Post Office, who were more than willing to make it possible for her to miss work during the transplant surgery and recovery.
Even as Selenke checked in at the hospital and prepared for surgery, she did not feel nervous or fearful.
“I believe God gave me a peace during the whole decision-making process and through the surgery,” she said. “I felt like everything was going to be OK, and it was. Everything went so well.”
Selenke’s surgery took about five hours; the surgeon was able to use a minimally-invasive, laparoscopic approach. As soon as her kidney was removed, it was rushed to another nearby operating room, where a separate medical team started the process of giving it to Hutto.
Selenke was released from the hospital the following day but stayed in Durham the rest of the week for follow-up appointments. Hutto was still in the hospital when it was time for Selenke to return home, but both she and her new kidney were doing well.
“I got to visit her several times,” Selenke said. “It was a happy time, a really happy time.”
The happiness has continued in the weeks since, according to Hutto. She has said goodbye to daily dialysis, and her energy level and quality of life have rebounded. Selenke’s kidney has been so well-tolerated that Hutto has been able to lower her daily dose of anti-rejection drugs.
“It’s changed our lives,” Hutto said. “It’s actually given me hope for a future, whereas before, the future looked very short and very dim.”
How do you thank someone for giving you a part of herself?
“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” Hutto said. “We call her, and we tell her thanks, but that is never going to be enough. I’m always looking, thinking what I can do, but I know that it would never repay her for what she did.”
Selenke is thankful, too. Being an organ donor has added a lot of joy, and meaning, to her life.
“I just think maybe God gave us two kidneys so we could share, so we could give a kidney away,” she said.