Frank Soltysiak was always a hard worker. And one day in 2014, he felt it start to catch up to him.
While working a “quasi-third shift” at a casino near his Cleveland, Ohio home, he began experiencing severe migraines, sometimes so bad they would make him throw up.
The headaches persisted long enough for Frank to turn to WebMD for possible answers. His symptoms matched up with those commonly experienced from excessive caffeine use. Working three jobs, Frank was reliant upon coffee and Mountain Dew to help him get through. So he curbed his intake.
But the headaches and nausea went on.
Finally, one weekend, it got bad enough that his wife, Chastity, asked him to go to the hospital. The visit would end up changing—and saving—his life.
Frank’s blood pressure was 210/180.
“‘That’s stroke level,’” he recalls the nurse telling him. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s really bad.’ Because other than throwing up and the headaches, it didn’t seem like anything that bad was happening. There was nothing that screamed, ‘Your kidneys are failing.’”
But that’s certainly what the blood test said. The creatinine in his blood—essentially, a measure of toxicity determining how well the kidneys are working—was at 9 milligrams. A normal level is closer to 1.2.
“Both of my kidneys had about between 7-10% left working,” he said. “They didn’t know what caused it, but there was a lot of scarring on my kidneys.”
The Long Wait
It was far from the last time Frank and Chastity would visit the hospital in the following years.
Frank, then 39, was put on the organ donor list for his kidneys. He was told it could be at least 2 years, and possibly longer, before he could find a match and be treated.
In the meantime, he was given an exceptionally long list of dietary restrictions, to stop his blood from becoming toxic in the absence of assistance from his kidneys.
“I was basically just down to white bread,” he said. “There were so many things I couldn’t eat, because my body couldn’t get rid of those things. It was torture.”
But that paled in comparison to the dialysis he would soon start.
Three times a week, for 5 hours a shot, Frank sat, attached to the machine that would suck the blood out of his body, clean it, then return it to his veins. With a 6-month-old son at home, he returned to work right away, scheduling the grueling procedure around his jobs—often starting dialysis at 5:30 a.m., finishing up around 10:30 a.m., then working from noon to midnight.
“It’s not a pleasant experience,” he said. “It sucks it all out of you. You go to the zoo with your family, and you can’t walk up the hill because you don’t have that energy anymore. You have to watch how much you drink because that determines how much fluid needs to be taken out of your blood during dialysis—if there’s a lot, it hurts that much more. You lose muscle mass.”
And the start of treatment didn’t mean an end to discomfort.
“Sometimes, there were reactions. You don’t know why it’s happening, or it doesn’t make sense why it’s happening, and you’d have to go to the hospital to get it checked out,” he said. “It was very confusing, and sometimes that was just as bad as the symptoms. Mentally, it will beat you up also.”
With Frank tied up to his dialysis schedule, Chastity began mobilizing.
In short order, a number of friends and family members stepped forward to see if they could be a possible match for the ailing husband and father—a prospect that’s much trickier to pinpoint than one might think, Chastity said.
“If you’re going in as a donor, it’s the best physical you can possibly have,” she said. “They’re really checking out every little thing to see if you can do this. It’s so in-depth, you can only have one person going through it at a time. A lot of doctors have to get together.”
The thorough effort goes far beyond determining a simple blood-type match. Doctors conduct a number of tests—including several types of cancer screenings, and a 24-hour blood pressure monitor—to ensure a donor could live healthily after losing a major organ.
Of the handful of possible matches for Frank, this latter concern ruled out several prospects, including Frank’s mother, the couple said.
But Chastity knew she was at least a blood type match for her husband—the first step toward becoming a donor match. Hopeful, she scheduled the next round of exams to see if she could give him a kidney, but there was one crucial test she didn’t pass: her pregnancy test.
As it turns out, the couple was expecting their second child.
Undeterred, the then-41-year-old mother asked how long after giving birth she would have to wait before going through with the kidney donation surgery.
“I planned on [donating] before I found out I was pregnant, so I didn’t even think that much about it,” she said. “I knew I was going to do it. I pretty much made the decision that I would as soon as I knew I was a match.”
The doctors told her she would need to wait 6 months after giving birth—just about long enough to wrap up breast-feeding and let her body heal—to go in for the procedure.
“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do it yet. You’re both going to get surgery. You just had a kid,’” she said. “But I’m going, ‘I’m going in. I’m a match. I’m ready.’ I would’ve done it sooner if I had been allowed to.”
Shortly after their second child, Charlotte, was born, Chastity and Frank were given the date for their expected kidney procedure: December 29, 2014, the same day as the couple’s wedding anniversary.
The Ultimate Anniversary Gift
The traditional gift for a second wedding anniversary is cotton. In a way, Chastity and Frank followed the custom, spending the day wrapped up in hospital robes, awaiting their hours-long twin procedures.
But the real presents were the surgeries, which went off without a hitch.
The couple even got to ring in 2015 together, snapping a photo in their hospital beds wearing big, goofy New Year’s hats and sunglasses—a memory they both speak of fondly—before they were discharged.
Back at home, they were met with several difficulties at first. A newborn and toddler in the house meant Frank couldn’t return right away, for fear of catching a possible infection. (“I wasn’t even allowed to pick up my daughter for a month and a half after I came home,” he said.)
Nearly 3 years later, however, both are recovered, living healthily and happily thanks to a mix of support, determination, and continued medical assistance. (They take 6 pills each in the morning and 4 more at night—a stark reduction from the medicinal schedule they were given shortly after surgery.)
“Besides the blood tests and some scars and the pills, I’m all good,” Frank said. “It’s not even like it’s hanging over my head that I’m worried anymore. The first year, I was worried, but you kind of just have to go on with your life. I can’t say to myself, ‘This kidney might only last a few years,’ so you just do what you do—it’s what I was doing before I knew my kidneys were busted anyway. You just deal with it as it comes; you don’t really have a choice otherwise.”
And while Frank’s parents have sent them “kidney-versary” gifts in past—including a can of kidney beans to commemorate the special day—when December 29th rolls around this year, the couple will be focused on celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary, instead.
“Our anniversary is the most important part of that day,” Frank said. “The kidney is important, but the fact that I have my wife and my best friend—that’s what that day is about, to me.”