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Promise of transplant begins to awaken family from ‘nightmare’ year of illness and loss

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Life was different for Angela Dotson in early 2021. A young working mom, she frequently dropped off her son with his grandpa while she worked and struggled to get on her feet. One year later, however, illness has taken her father, her job, her independence, and her health, but the recent promise of a kidney transplant means hope is on the horizon.

Angela, 27, was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease in March 2021, three months after recovering from COVID-19. Three weeks later, her father, “Big Willie” Dotson, died suddenly of a heart attack.

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“It was hard,” Angela said. “It broke me up. He was always there to make sure I was OK at the end of the day.”

The fallout from those two events altered her existence. Still mourning her loss, Angela’s illness and treatment made it nearly impossible to work. Without a paycheck or “Poppa” to provide care for her now 5-year-old son Myles, she became dependent on the help of her extended family — a family struggling to navigate a life that was nearly unrecognizable in the loss of its larger-than-life patriarch.

Angela contracted COVID early in the pandemic, prior to vaccines that can prevent the spread of the virus or mitigate symptoms and hospitalization in those who are infected. Like many, she suffered debilitating symptoms including chest congestion and pain, loss of smell and taste, sore throat, body cramps, and fever.

“At first I thought I had strep,” she said. “But the test came back negative, so I thought I was all right. Then I had the chills. I was tired and I couldn’t eat. It was horrible.”

A subsequent test showed she was positive for COVID, which can affect organs and systems long after the viral symptoms have subsided in some patients. Although her health began to improve after about a month, Angela said she then began to suffer from blurred vision. A doctor discovered fluid buildup in her eyes and immediately sent her to the hospital for an MRI.

“I got a call saying that Angela is being sent to the ER for a possible brain tumor,” said mother Nicole Dotson. “They of course did all the lab work, and that was the first indication that something was wrong with her kidneys. At the time they didn’t necessarily think it was kidney disease. They thought it was just a kidney infection.”

Nicole said she asked doctors multiple times if the problem might be COVID-related organ failure, but she was assured it was not. An eventual biopsy returned the diagnosis of renal failure.

Family members (left to right) Traci, Angela, Nicole and Willie Dotson IV on a trip to Colorado in August 2021.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins report that more than 30% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 develop some form of kidney injury, and 50% of those patients require dialysis. Over time, approximately two-thirds of those patients will regain kidney function, but one-third will require ongoing treatment, dialysis, or even transplant.

With just 10% function in each kidney, Angela now spends three days of each week undergoing three hours of dialysis at the DaVita Kidney Care center at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

“On a good day it works perfectly fine,” she said. “On a bad day my arm will vibrate really bad or they’ll have to re-poke me until they get it right.”

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To qualify for a transplant, Angela met with a nephrologist at St. Luke’s Liver & Transplant Specialists in Kansas City, Mo., undergoing a series of tests and implementing dietary restrictions on salt and sugar. On Feb. 16, the Dotsons learned that Angela has been approved for a kidney transplant.

Learning that she was officially eligible to receive a donor organ was cause for celebration, but even the good news was tempered by new obstacles. For example, once they receive notice that a kidney is available, the family has only an hour to get to the surgery location in Kansas City, keeping them in a perpetually heightened state of readiness.

“I told her we kind of need a pack as if she was going into labor,” Nicole said.

After surgery, recovery in the hospital lasts about a week. Once patients are discharged, St. Luke’s requires that they remain within 10 miles of the facility for approximately one week. Hotel stays and travel costs both during and after surgery will add up, straining the family’s financial limits.

Angela is currently receiving some disability payments, but childcare shortages and the physical restrictions of her illness have rendered her unable to work. To offset the expenses associated with the transplant procedure, the family has set up a GoFundMe page not only to support Angela, but also the donor or donor’s family, who will also have financial burdens to bear.

“As a family we’re going to need that,” Nicole said. “We do want to help whoever is going to be her donor with whatever they’re going to need as well.”

Nicole said losing her husband had left the entire family struggling in every imaginable way. Efforts to help her daughter heal have derailed much of her ability to fully grieve, but she has done her best to step in where Big Willie once led the way.

“It’s been like a nightmare we can’t wake up from,” she said. “You know, we’ve just been taking it day by day. I try to kiss on all my kids, and I try to send them inspirational stuff because I know that’s what he would do.”

Angela said knowing the transplant is truly happening has lifted a huge burden from her shoulders.

She is looking forward to getting past surgery, returning to work, getting Myles enrolled in kindergarten and moving forward with life — even using the same words her father often did.

“I just keep pushing,” she said.

Visit Angela’s Kidney Transplant page to make a donation to support the Dotson family. For more information about becoming a kidney donor, visit the Saint Luke’s Hospital Living Kidney Donor Screener page.

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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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