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Kathy Duttlinger in a greenhouse.

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KATHY DUTTLINGER A chance conversation prompted her life-changing gift to a colleague and friend.

It’s not every day that a conversation in an elevator turns out to change lives. But that’s what happened when UI greenhouse caretaker Kathy Duttlinger offered her kidney to fellow UI staff member Yolanda Frudden, a lab runner at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

When Duttlinger heard of Frudden’s plight, she told her, “I’ll help you out.”

The two women have come a long way from being acquaintances who greeted each other when passing in the hall. In the couple of years since the transplant, Frudden’s kids have taken to calling Duttlinger “second mom.” The women call each other every couple of days and attend each other’s family reunions. Duttlinger also got to visit Frudden’s native Philippines for her 50th birthday.

In that fateful elevator conversation, Frudden teared up as she told Duttlinger her kidneys were only 10 percent functional. She had been getting headaches and nausea, and her legs had started to swell. She hadn’t found a suitable donor in her family, and had been on the kidney transplant waitlist for a year.

Her chances of being matched to a donor were slim, as only 21 percent of waitlist patients get transplants each year, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. Frudden knew that if she didn’t track down a donor soon, she’d find herself in the dialysis chair four hours a day, three times a week. She wasn’t ready for that.

“There are just so many things that I’d like to do,” says Frudden, who, in addition to her work at the hospital, travels to see her grown-up kids in California and runs a meat-on-a-stick business outside Kinnick Stadium on football Saturdays.

In Duttlinger, she found her match.

People who’ve heard about Duttlinger’s altruistic act have often remarked that they don’t think they could have done what she did.

“I’m just a believer that there are people out there that are less fortunate than I am,” Duttlinger says. “I think there was a reason why we happened to be in that elevator at the same time.”

Yolanda Frudden and Kathy Duttlinger
  Yolanda Frudden (left) and Kathy Duttlinger.

Duttlinger’s innate desire to help stems from her relationships with the local community, especially the link between her son and his longtime Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor. Her son, who at 23 no longer needs a Big Brother, still sees his former mentor regularly, and helps out on his farm. As a single mom with two jobs raising two kids, Duttlinger appreciated how the farmer spent every Saturday with her son, and would call up midweek to see how his “little brother” was doing.

“When you see people who do things like that it does something to you,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s pretty awesome when you see people help out like that.”

With Duttlinger’s kidney inside her, Frudden feels “110 times better.” Before the transplant, her kidney function had dwindled so far that she’d take up to eight hours between bathroom breaks.

“I tell Kathy jokingly, ‘Every time I pee, I think of you,’” Frudden says.

There’s no guarantee that her body won’t reject Duttlinger’s kidney at some point, even though she takes anti-rejection medication every day. But Frudden is determined to make the most out of the transplant.

“Doctors say some kidneys last one week or two, and some 25 years. My kidney’s going to last me 25 years,” she says, a steely look in her eyes.

Story by Po Li Loo; Photos by Tom Jorgensen

Nov. 3, 2008