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Chicago siblings share a birthday — and now, a kidney

Brother and sister Robert Baldwin Jr. and Caroline Bivens credit their faith and unwavering family dedication for getting them through Bivens’ “living” kidney donation to Baldwin, whose diseased kidneys started failing at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

They credit University of Chicago Medicine with being one of the only hospitals in the country to perform a minimally invasive surgery in February that left Bivens with just a bandage on her belly button — and Baldwin a new kidney.

The siblings — who share the same birthday, five years apart — came to appreciate how easily they could talk with the health care providers at UChicago Medicine.

“We came for a kidney transplant evaluation last June,” Baldwin said. “I fell in love with the staff and how well they communicated. I didn’t have to wait for a call back. I could speak to the surgeon or the nephrologists at any time. This was pre-transplant care.”

The procedure involves a single small incision in the donor’s belly button through which instruments are placed and the kidney removed. Most patients wake up with a small band-aid over the belly button, the scar hidden inside it.

The nephrectomy is as safe as the traditional laparoscopic approach that involves making multiple small incisions and a longer extraction incision to remove the kidney, UChicago Medicine says. These minimally-invasive laparoscopic surgeries also reduce recovery times.

Baldwin and his family rented a house in Hyde Park and Bivens rented a condo near Millennium Park , and made Chicago their home-away-from-home to prepare for their surgeries and recoveries.

Bivens — who had given birth to three of her four children by Caesarean section — said afterward she could hardly believe the surgery had even been done .

“If I had the option, I would definitely do it again,” said Bivens, 38, an interior design social-media influencer who lives in Topeka, Kansas. “I was never in dire pain. And I was at 100 % at six weeks after the surgery.”

Baldwin, 43, a trucking company fleet manager who lives in Springfield, Missouri, returned to work two months after the surgery.

The saga started four years ago when Baldwin learned, after he felt more and more tired and his face had swollen, that he had a disease called Membranous glomerulonephritis (MGN). The disease damages the kidneys, and has caused Baldwin, over time, to gain water weight (he’s lost 50 pounds since the transplant) and retain fluid in his face, neck and chest. Kidney failure also makes people itch because the kidneys cannot filter waste, so the waste builds up in the bloodstream.

“I was going to the doctor twice a week for infusions into my blood,” Baldwin said, noting that he and his wife, Deborah, tried to shield the situation from their daughter, Kaitlyn, now 9, but Kaitlyn could tell that her dad felt bad.

Baldwin took a turn for the worse in March 2019, when he caught a cold that, because he was taking medicine to suppress his immune system, turned into a severe respiratory virus. Doctors took him off the medicine, intubated him so that machines took over his breathing, and gave him constant antibiotic feeds.

Baldwin stayed in the hospital for three weeks as his body healed. A second biopsy showed the damage had progressed more than doctors had expected, and a transplant emerged as the only answer. Baldwin’s disease continues to attack his new kidney, but he’s taking medication to keep the damage at bay for at least a decade or two.

Baldwin’s wife and mother were ruled out as donors. Bivens said she felt no hesitancy to step up.

“There’s always an opportunity to be a living donor,” she said. “It can save someone’s life. It might be a little interference — to put a pause on your life — but it can allow someone else to live a littler fuller of a life.”

She said her children —ages 14, 13, 10 and 9 — appreciated her sacrifice.

“The kids learned so much,” Bivens said. “I hope one day, if they’re in a place where the y have an opportunity to donate, they will l say, ‘I can do it. My mom did it.’ ”

Baldwin said he feels that, “Through prayer, God saved my life. It could have easily gone the other way. I’m so thankful for the hospital, the doctors, the transplant team, the nurses, prayers from friends and co-workers and my church. I am very thankful that, because it was so miserable, I’m thankful it was me who had to deal with it, rather than someone I love.”