With transplant, even success brings complications

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InEvanston, Dan Coyne with Myra de la Vega, for whom his organ donation provided a desperately needed kidney transplant. | Kevin Tanaka / Sun-Times

If not for the kidney transplant she got five years ago, Myra de la Vega knows she might not have lived to see her daughter graduate from college.

And she wouldn’t have had the strength to help her mother now as she deals with the aftermath of a stroke.

A near-stranger’s act of kindness made these things possible for de la Vega, a single mother of two from Evanston.

Her new kidney was a gift from Dan Coyne, a Chicago Public Schools social worker who knew her only as the friendly woman working at the Jewel-Osco store in Evanston where he shopped. He noticed she didn’t look well, asked about her health and, after talking things over with his wife, eventually ended up giving her one of his kidneys

“It was an easy decision,” Coyne said before his surgery in 2010.

De la Vega had a different take: “It’s unbelievable — a complete stranger offering his kidney to me.”

De la Vega and Coyne became friends after the March 2010 transplant, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Forever connected, they got together to mark the fifth anniversary of the transplant. Another Jewel customer made them a cake — not just kidney-shaped but complete with icing to mark the renal artery, renal vein and ureter.

Coyne’s gift may well have saved de la Vega’s life. At the least, it gave her years she probably would not have had.

The anniversary is a reminder of that.

But it also reminds her the clock is ticking. Just over half of all transplanted kidneys are still working after 10 years, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

“I am scared, too,” said de la Vega, who is 54. “Nothing is forever.”

Every day, to keep her body from rejecting the kidney, she takes 20 prescription medications. She works only six or seven hours a day because the drugs leave her tired all the time.

“I have to have the energy to close the store,” she said. “It’s kind of hard. People don’t see it because I am always cheerful. It doesn’t mean when I look good I feel good, too.”

Kidney donor Dan Coyne with Myra de la Vaga in 2010. Sun-Times file photo

When she’s home, she and her daughter care for her elderly mother, who is recovering after a stroke.

The cause of her kidney failure isn’t clear. The possibility it might be something congenital makes her worry for her children. Her 20-year-old son has regular checkups to make sure his kidneys remain healthy.

Each time she takes her son to the doctor, de la Vega says, her thoughts are: “Please tell me his kidney is not like mine.”

Coyne, 57, has remained in good health. But he’s had complications of another kind. After more than a decade as a social worker for CPS, most recently at Ogden International High School on West Erie Street in West Town, Coyne now faces the prospect of losing his job. News coverage of the transplant alerted CPS officials that he lives in Evanston, not in the city, as the school system requires.

When he was hired in 2002, Coyne says CPS needed social workers so badly that officials were willing to waive the residency requirement, but that policy was later changed.

No one did anything in his case until 2010, when CPS officials initiated dismissal proceedings despite praising Coyne for his selflessness. At Pershing East Magnet School on the South Side, where he worked then, the principal lauded him as “such a giving guy” after his organ donation, declared a “Dan Coyne Day” in his honor and used it to show students the importance of giving to others.

He was later informed CPS had “rescinded my termination warning. At that point, I stopped worrying.”

But the letter he was given shows CPS halted the process only because Coyne hadn’t been properly notified and given the chance to move to the city.

Now, Coyne again is facing dismissal. He had a final termination hearing a week ago. He said he’s been told to expect a decision in mid-August.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said, “I cannot comment, as this is a personnel matter.”

Even if it means losing his job, Coyne said he won’t move.

“My children, my family, my church community is right here in Evanston,” he said.

“It’s taken a toll on me socially and emotionally,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. I do hope I can continue to keep working with kids.”

De la Vega is focused on her own children. She said that no matter what she’s gone through, no matter how long the gift Coyne gave lasts, she knows this:

“I’ve raised two great kids, period. Nothing is going to take that away.”

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