MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Eric Storms lifted his phone to video chat with his wife and three children on Christmas Day, but the pain was unbearable.
The 32-year-old Chamberlain resident was 10 days removed from a kidney and pancreas transplant after diabetes left his kidney function at 12%. The procedure at University of Minnesota Fairview Health Clinics and Surgery Center left him so weak that simply lifting his phone in the air sapped the strength from his body.
Storms was separated from his wife Destiney and kids for 11 days in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions. He was released from the hospital on Dec. 26 and reunited with Destiney, and the two have since been in Minneapolis as he received treatments until being cleared for discharge Friday, Jan. 8.
But being separated from his family for nearly a month, much of it spent in discomfort, will be worth it to the Storms family. He will no longer have to check his sugar levels or worry about dialysis. Instead, Eric can return to his active lifestyle and has his sights set on competing in the Bass Nation regionals in September in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
“Every day I get better,” Eric said. “The better I feel, the more grateful I am for doing it. The first couple days I was in the hospital, I couldn’t eat or drink. I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is miserable. I don’t ever want to do this again.’ But now that I’m starting to feel better, it’s going to be worth it.”
Eric was diagnosed with diabetes at 14 years old, and despite carefully managing the illness, his kidneys began to fail. In December 2019, his doctor recommended reviewing options for dialysis and transplants as kidney failure reached Stage 4 and 24% functionality.
An avid outdoorsman with active job as an electrician at St. Joseph’s Indian School, Eric was facing death prior to the age of 50 without a transplant. They discussed options with specialists in Sioux Falls, but when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, in-person appointments were put on hiatus.
Virtual visits and a trip to Fairview in May resulted in the suggestion of simultaneously getting kidney and pancreas transplants. Eric also had to travel to Minneapolis in September for a required in-person visit to be placed on the active donor list.
Several family members offered to be kidney donors and had a few matches, but he needed a match for the pancreas as well.
“If I’m going to go through surgery, why not get rid of my diabetes also,” Eric said. “Instead of fixing one problem, let’s fix them both.”
On Nov. 30, Eric’s kidney function decreased again with symptoms of increased fatigue, chills, increased urination frequency and lack of sleep. A peritoneal dialysis catheter was placed in his abdomen to absorb waste in the lining. He received dialysis once in Sioux Falls and was expecting it to be a regular occurrence until donor options became available.
They were preparing to reconfigure their house for in-home dialysis treatments, while Eric was lamenting the idea of having to change his lifestyle because of the treatments. But less than a week later and within days of being officially approved on the active donor list, Fairview called with a matching donor.
Eric was given 15 minutes to accept or decline the donation, but within three hours, Eric and Destiney were on the road to Minneapolis. But while the decision was made quickly, it was not an easy one.
“We were still thinking we were going to be doing dialysis for the next six months,” Destiney said. “We were always told that it would 1 to 2 years for a match.”
Eric was admitted to the hospital at 8 p.m. Dec. 15 and went into surgery at 7 a.m. the following day. He did not sleep much the night before surgery, but he did not wake up after surgery until 10 p.m. The length of surgery lasted more than nine hours and he struggled to initially speak due to the pain.
For the first five days, all food and hydration came through a three-port IV in his neck, along with another in both arms.
“Just holding my phone put that much stress on my stomach muscles,” Eric said. “I could only talk for about 2 minutes and I wanted to put my phone down and talk to them later. … Even when they discharged me, I could only walk 200 yards and I needed to sit down, because I was winded and I just needed to rest for a little while.”
New organs come with a new thought process
Destiney spent most of the first 11 days alone in a hotel room a few blocks from the hospital. She wanted to be nearby in case of an emergency or if a decision was made while Eric was incapacitated.
By Christmas, Eric was feeling better but not able to be discharged yet. So, Destiney made one all-night trip back to Chamberlain to visit their kids — three boys ages 11, 7 and 2 — who were staying with grandparents in Winner.
“They knew that their dad was going to need this transplant, but we hadn’t gone down the road of telling them what to expect if this happened,” Destiney said. “I think it’s kind of hard for them that we’ve been gone for so long. … They understand that their dad was sick and needed this transplant, but they didn’t know how long we’d be gone.”
Meanwhile, Eric spent most of his stay not only attempting to regain his strength and fight off the pain in his abdomen, but he began to think about his life frequently, and it changed his perspective.
“I had nothing else to do but think about how thankful I am,” Eric said. “It really makes you look at life differently. It makes you almost not even worry about the small stuff that used to bother you. It definitely gives me a different outlook on life.”
Destiney raced back to Minneapolis for Eric’s discharge on Dec. 26, but returned daily to the hospital for appointments until his full release Friday. Doctors were monitoring his kidney function and ensuring he is on the proper medications.
But even though the pain has nearly caused him to go the emergency room a few times, Eric’s recovery has gone as doctors expected, which includes drinking more than a gallon of water a day so that the new kidney becomes acclimated with his body.
“His kidney is still trying to figure out how to regulate,” said Destiney, who works for Avera Health as a health informaticist. “They kind of explained to us that my kidneys won’t produce urine or excrete waste if I don’t drink water all day, whereas Eric’s kidney is going to get rid of fluids regardless of how much he’s drinking. It doesn’t know how to regulate yet.”
Upon returning home, Eric will have his blood drawn three times per week for a month and then it drops to two times a week, but eventually it will decline to monthly. He will also have to battle a compromised immune system for the remainder of his life, amplified in the immediate stages of post-surgery.
Not only will he have to continue to take immunosuppresants, but due to COVID-19 it has been recommended that Eric take extra precautions, including with his own family members. Doctors have advised him to hug his kids, but not kiss them for a while due to germs picked up from school or day care.
Yet, despite the pain and extra care that will need to be taken once they return home, the Storms continue to be grateful, particularly to the family that donated Eric’s new kidney and pancreas.
“This whole experience has been humbling for both of us because of organ donation,” Destiney said. “ … We don’t know much about Eric’s donor other than it was a young male and his family made the decision to donate. It was a grateful time of year for us, although it’s been stressful. But I can’t imagine what that family is going through. They lost their loved one, but gave life to others.”