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Brotherly love: When Norm MacLeod’s kidneys failed, his brother stepped up

  • Brothers Norm MacLeod, left, of Northampton, and Sam MacLeod of Amherst, at Sam’s home last Friday. When Norm’s kidney began to fail him six weeks before retirement from the post office, his brother agreed to donate one of his kidneys. The surgery is this week. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Brothers Norm MacLeod, left, of Northampton, and Sam MacLeod of Amherst, at Sam’s house last Friday. Sam says being able to donate a kidney to Norm is “just automatic.” Norm, meanwhile, says, “it means everything. It means my life.” STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Monday, April 05, 2021

Florence resident Norm MacLeod has always been someone who’s preferred to deal with problems by himself, according to his brother, Sam MacLeod. But in November 2019, Norm found himself in a situation he couldn’t tackle alone: He needed a kidney transplant.

That’s when Sam stepped forward. Almost a year and a half later, and after numerous tests for approval as an acceptable match, Sam donated his kidney to Norm, with the surgery taking place last Thursday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

For about six months before finding out he needed a transplant, Norm knew that he had kidney disease. But when his symptoms rapidly progressed to severe levels in late 2019, it quickly became apparent to the brothers that the situation was more dire than they had previously realized.

“Norm being Norm tends not to speak about his own issues,” said Sam, an Amherst resident. “He deals with them. He takes care of himself.”

So when Sam called Norm for a usual check-in, only for Norm to tell him that he was in the emergency room, Sam was alarmed. The severity of the situation thoroughly sunk in when he first visited Norm in the hospital as he underwent dialysis, a treatment that filters waste and excess fluid from the blood in people whose kidneys can no longer perform this function.

“The metaphor that I use is that it’s fine, theoretically, to think that with dialysis, you hook up to a machine and it’s easy,” Sam said. “But when you see it, it’s kind of like a car engine removing the fluids and putting them back in — except that car engine is your brother, and the fluids are red.”

The sight was startling enough to shift the situation into “a whole new ballgame,” Sam said, and he knew that he wanted to do whatever he could to help. After another of the six MacLeod brothers stepped forward but was rejected as a donor, Sam was next in line to be evaluated as a match.

Most donated kidneys come from cadavers, though this type of donation means waiting for a match is a lengthier process: Norm would have to wait an estimated five to six years, he said. Kidneys from living donors are generally healthier as well, and closer genetics found in family members can limit the odds of rejection.

But for Sam and Norm, the biggest concerns were the health problems that could arise while Norm awaited a donor kidney. Life expectancy without the donation is about eight years, but risk of additional complications, such as infection associated with dialysis treatments, increases with age.

With a donated kidney, Norm, who was in otherwise good health, was told by his doctor that he could live to be 90. His life quality will also improve significantly.

“Right now, my life sort of centers around going to dialysis,” Norm said — he spends 12 hours each week in treatment, spread out over three days, and has also needed to make other lifestyle alterations to stay healthier, such as limiting certain foods and fluid intake. “It’s sort of my new, part-time job.”

These adjustments are far from what  Norm had anticipated at this point in his life: When he went into kidney failure, he was just weeks away from his retirement from the post office, where he had worked for decades as a window clerk and letter carrier, mostly in Northampton and Amherst.

“My retirement was not what I thought it was going to be,” Norm noted.

The kidney disease has also taken a toll on his energy. Norm, who ran half-marathons before his kidney problems, has now cut down his running to about two miles a day, four days a week.

And while dialysis can extend life for years, or sometimes even decades, in people with kidney failure, the process is “nowhere near perfect,” Norm said, noting that 12 hours a week of dialysis cannot provide the same benefits as the constant filtering of a healthy kidney. The treatment also cannot replace all the functions of a kidney.

Life adjustments

Norm will still have to make life adjustments now that he has had the transplant — notably, he will need to take immunosuppressants for the rest of his life to prevent rejection of the kidney, which will make him more susceptible to other illnesses.

But it’s a “fair trade,” Norm said. After the transplant and recovery, he looks forward to being able to run more; eat some of his previously restricted favorite foods, such as potatoes and bananas; and getting back to playing “baby boomer rock music” with his band.

Norm is now on his way to this reality — he and Sam were both discharged from Massachusetts General Hospital on Sunday afternoon, and Norm’s new kidney appears to be functioning well.

“Things will need to be monitored for a long time,” Sam said, “but I’m optimistic.” 

Sam also pointed out that the surgery took place just before April, “Donate Life Month,” which he said is a good reminder that people can make a difference in the lives of those awaiting transplants by registering as organ, eye and tissue donors through the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Both living donors and recipients go through a lengthy, thorough process to determine that the transplant has a good chance at success. This process includes consults with a nephrologist, nutritionist, and social worker, as well as general health evaluations to determine that the donor and the recipient are both healthy enough for the transplant, and that the genetic match is suitable.

After speaking extensively with specialists, Sam is “extremely comfortable with the risk factors from my perspective,” he said — Mass General staff told him that his surgeon has never had a bad outcome for donors, and that donating one kidney will not have significant impacts on his overall health or lifestyle. Additionally, if Sam were to experience kidney failure in the future, his status as a donor would give him priority on the waiting list for a transplant.

Sam also isn’t bothered by the possibility of minor effects from the surgery.

“I’ve made it far enough that it’s been good, and if I have mild post-surgery impacts … it wouldn’t be a big deal compared to the alternative,” Sam said.

Growing up, “Norm has always been there for me,” he said, recalling that his older brother taught him how to ride a bike and helped him with any problems he had in their childhood and as Sam went to college.

“If I had an issue, he’d be the one I talk to,” Sam said of Norm, adding, “to be able to assist is just automatic.”

And for Norm, the impact of this assistance can’t be understated.

“It means everything,” Norm said. “It means my life.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.