Father, daughter give each other the gift of life

Michael Huber surprised his daughter, Reagan, with a t-shirt that says it all at the University of Nebraska Medical Center two days after his kidney transplant. 

In 2017, Reagan Huber was wait-listed after her first interview as an applicant to DMU’s physician assistant studies program. Looking back on that now, she considers it one of those things that happen for a reason – in her case, so she could donate a kidney to her father. 

Michael Huber had his first kidney transplant when his daughter was five. “Dad was always sicker than other dads,” she recalls. By the time she graduated from Iowa State University in 2016, he was having dialysis at home, three days a week, four hours each session. She returned to their Omaha, NE, home to help her mother, Heather, with his care. 

“My mom and I learned how to insert needles in his port and take them out,” Reagan says. When the University of Nebraska Medical Center put Michael’s name on its list of people who need donated organs, she proposed that she be checked as a possible match. 

“Initially, he was ‘Absolutely not – you’re too young, you don’t have children,’” she said. “I filled out the application and didn’t tell anyone.” 

That launched Reagan through a battery of blood draws, urine collections and “every other medical test imaginable.” When she got the call in December 2016 that she was a match, she was “very excited,” but she also had a series of serious conversations. 

“They tell you the whole time you can back out. They make you meet with a psychologist about ‘why do you want to do this? What if you do this and it doesn’t work?’” she says. “They walk you through all the possible complications. It was such a rabbit hole.” 

Initially shocked at what his daughter had done, Michael agreed to proceed, all the while asking if she was sure about it. The family was in Florida when the transplant team called to say it was time to choose a date. 

“Now it’s real,” Reagan says. “We didn’t really talk about it, but we both understood what that meant. I had this weird understanding that everything would be fine.” 

That turned out to be true, but only eventually. Reagan, who had never had anesthesia before, experienced an allergic reaction and painful gas bubbles in her bloodstream and severe muscle cramping. After four days in the hospital, she woke up at home, unable to stop vomiting. She then contracted strep throat because of her weakened immune system. 

“My situation made Dad cry, because he was feeling great,” Reagan says. 

Michael recalls being “amazed” at how positive Reagan remained despite her pain. “She made a huge sacrifice. It was a big giving thing for her,” he says. 

Ultimately, as states the t-shirt he gave to his daughter two days after the procedure, it all “was worth it.” 

“He was always very tired before; now he has more energy than he’d had in 10 years,” she says. “His body took to the kidney very well. It’s still a bizarre concept to sit at the dinner table and know that one of my organs is in his body. It blows my mind.” 

Reagan had a second interview at DMU in July 2017 and was accepted as a member of the physician assistant Class of 2020. When she began the program in June 2018, her first class was anatomy. 

“I remember the day we were going to cut open a kidney. To see it, hold it and open it was extremely fascinating,” she says. She marvels at her systems classes, in which she’s learned “how it all ties into place,” and her pharmacology course, which helped her understand how different drugs would affect her lone kidney. Her experiences as a patient and as a DMU student also have given her a deeper appreciation for her future profession. 

“When I was in the hospital, many doctors would come in and out of my room, but I had just one PA who could see in my face that I was in pain,” she says. “She talked to the doctors about what we could do. Physician assistants are big on the people aspect of health care and not just the medical aspect.” 

Understandably interested in transplant medicine, Reagan is unabashedly awed by the fact that organ donation is “possible and it works.” She recalls a clinic staff member who, at her first set of blood draws, asked whether Reagan was “donating or receiving.” 

“When I told her what we were doing, she said, ‘Your dad gave you life, and now you’re doing that for him – that’s so cool,’” she says. “That my kidney was put in my dad and made him a completely different person is amazing.” 

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