A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Tim Hanner, his own story: Discovering surprising kidney disease — and dealing with the what’s next?

First of two parts

Educator Tim Hanner shares his story in his own words — a story of the journey through discovering his kidney disease and two transplants, a journey of love and kindness and gratitude, a journey of friendships, family and faith, a journey of reflection, acceptance, and strength. And, when all is said and done, it’s the story of a life embraced and well-lived.

My beginnings as a kidney patient

I was first diagnosed with kidney failure 14 years ago after suffering from headaches due to high blood pressure. It was a shock to me and to my family since there was no history of kidney disease and no prior symptoms other than the high blood pressure.

It came at a time when I was applying for the position of Superintendent of the Kenton County School District, where I had been an educator for the prior 23 years. My first instinct was to pull my name from the application process but my boss at that time, then-Superintendent Dr. Susan Cook and my wife, Marlene, strongly encouraged and guided me to continue with the process – and I will forever be thankful to both of them for that guidance and support.

Tim Hanner

I was told by the incredible doctors at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, that I would more than likely need a transplant within two years; however, with steroids, anti-rejection, and oral cancer medications, the kidney could possibly last for up to five years. After a second opinion from the Mayo Clinic, I started treatment and began my role as Superintendent the following summer after Dr. Cook retired.

The five years that followed were some of the most physically challenging, but professionally and emotionally rewarding, years of my life!

Leading Up to the First Transplant

At the end of the 2011 school year, I needed to retire and focus on my health in order to get ready for my transplant. It was getting more difficult to keep the schedule needed to lead the district and it was recommended that I take a year’s leave or retire. I chose to retire so the school district could focus on progressing forward and not put the positive momentum that had been created on hold – and I did not want to be a distraction to the learning process in place in the schools.

It was the best decision because it took two more years for me to get the new kidney. Originally, we were looking at October or November of 2011 for surgery, but due to donor testing and the many tests of my own, the date was pushed back to February of 2012.

My brother, John, stepped up right away and said he would be the donor and went through the needed testing – he turned out to be a very good match. But, in early January of 2012, he had a spike in his blood pressure (after having no blood pressure issues in his entire life) and was eliminated as a donor.

The thing I learned at that moment (and it was something I needed to learn) was that the transplant team at Christ Hospital would rightfully not allow a donor or kidney recipient to move forward if there was any risk to either party. It is a very serious and precise operation, and the safety, health, and well-being of all involved is paramount; and I came to very much respect that more and more over time.

Tim and Marlene

After John was eliminated, my sister, Rebecca, came forward and said she wanted to be tested. Due to articles written in the Cincinnati Enquirer by Bill Croyle, many people called to inquire about being tested as a donor. Knowing there are people who want to help you and save your life, is a most humbling feeling; there are no words or no actions to ever express the right amount of gratitude I had in my heart. I was on dialysis at Davita in Crestview Hills prior to surgery and the staff did an incredible job of keeping me alive until transplant.

When my sister stepped forward, she did it without hesitation and she, like my brother, did it out of sincere love and caring support. She and I have always been close and this surgery took our closeness to an entirely different level. Having her kidney working within me to replace my failed kidneys gave me instant life. Due to health complications I encountered over the next year and a half, it was not until July 16th of 2013 that the surgery occurred.

Rebecca was incredible – she was positive and upbeat going into surgery and never complained (although I know it was very painful at times) following surgery. On the recent 7-year anniversary of the transplant, I wrote the following to her:

“Happy 7th kidney anniversary to my amazing, wonderful, and beautiful sister! You literally saved my life by donating your kidney! I was in pretty bad shape at that time and felt better as soon as I was awake following our surgery. You have also been a mentor, role model, and best friend throughout my life. There is so much love I have for you! I am blessed to be your brother!”

And I immediately had my life back!

I felt so much better and was walking on our street as soon as I came home following a six-day hospital stay. Our family, friends, and neighbors supplied meals and helped run errands – and helped with yard work (since I was banned from doing any work in the yard for a year). People were so caring and helpful to Marlene and me. And Marlene was an incredible caregiver who went above and beyond to ensure I got what I needed – and that I was following doctors’ orders.

The Journey Between Transplants

The first year was a year of ups and downs as I learned it’s a numbers game for the doctors following the many blood drawls I endured. I quickly had to learn patience as it became clear that a transplant is a treatment as opposed to a cure. I had two kidney biopsies within the first eight months to ensure my body was not rejecting the kidney. The biopsies showed the transplant was a success and I made progress and felt better each month. My sister continued to do well and had no complications, which was a huge relief to me.

First donor, sister Rebecca

Shortly after retirement, and as I was prepping for transplant, I worked with an incredible team of entrepreneurs to create a nonprofit that focused on helping middle and high school students discover their interests, passions, and talents to assist them and their families navigate the world through and beyond high school. From that premise, NaviGo was born.

The work on developing and implementing this business over an eight-year timeframe helped give me a much-needed focus leading to the first transplant – and ultimately the second transplant. I was able to pour myself into a project that I believed in very deeply, and it helped prevent the kidney disease from defining my life.

The work allowed me to be with phenomenal people who were dreamers and doers and I saw students impacted in incredible ways due to the efforts of these individuals. The founders included Jim Cutter, Jeremy Deters, Todd Dykes, and Ken Weidinger – and curriculum and training designer, Larry Tibbs. Early in our existence Stephanie Layton joined our team as Executive Director and she still serves in that role today.

Three years ago, NaviGo merged with Learning Grove (formerly Children, Inc.) and this created an incredible partnership of a multi-generational approach to working with families. The people mentioned above, and so many others I could list in this writing, were very patient with and supportive of me, for I had numerous medical appointments and sometimes wide-ranging mood swings partly brought on (I found out later) by my body adjusting to new medicines being introduced and changed on a frequent basis.

Tim with granddaughter Aberdeen

Little acts of kindness by this group and many others went a long way to keeping my spirits up as the years progressed. It is still common for me to receive a thoughtful, handwritten card of inspiration from Larry Tibbs, and this act of kindness is not only something he does for me but something he does for many others and he expects nothing in return. It is just an example of the humble, selfless people I have been blessed to encounter on this journey.

Three years following the first transplant I was told there was evidence my disease had returned and would eventually cause the transplanted kidney to fail. The doctors had prepared me before surgery so I knew this was a possibility, but the news was still very difficult to hear. My first feelings of emotion were that I had let my Rebecca down because she went through the surgery, donated an organ, and saved my life, and now my body was attacking her kidney.

I also dreaded sharing the news with Marlene for she worked so hard to help me as we prepared for and recovered from the first surgery. When I told Marlene, she was in denial at first and thought I should seek a second opinion (which I eventually did). She was simply sad for me and did not want to see me go through all of it again.

For me, it was true I was disappointed, but I felt I had been given a gift of living a normal life so I saw each of those days as a blessing, no matter how long it lasted.

My biggest concern was breaking the news to my sister. We traveled to her home in Georgia so I could talk with her face-to-face. I was obviously nervous and emotional as I tried to tell her. As I was talking, she took my hand and showed a slight smile, stopping me and said:

“I knew before I donated that this was a possibility, and I would do it all over again tomorrow if it gave you one day of life.”

The relief was instantaneous and we hugged and cried as Marlene joined in the deep conversation regarding life and purpose.

To be continued: Part two tomorrow

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See the NKyTribune’s story about Tim and his second donor Alyssa Vanderpool here.

See the NKyTribune’s story about Tim’s search for a new kidney here.

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