The gift of life

Jaralee Richter, the assistant director of University Centers at UW-La Crosse, walks her dog, Echo, near her home in La Crosse. Richter is recovering from a rare autoimmune disease after receiving a kidney transplant from Kari Treadway, a family friend and UWL alumna.

Jaralee Richter receives new kidney from old friend

Jaralee Richter has a new lease on life, and an old friend to thank for it.  

Richter, the assistant director of University Centers at UW-La Crosse, has been struggling with a rare autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly attacks the kidneys and lungs.  

On her worst days, Richter spent hour after hour in bed, hooked to a dialysis machine, too frail to stand. She began discussing life, death and faith with her family, in case she didn’t survive.  

Kidney donor, Kari Treadway.
Kari Treadway

Then came a ray of light, not calling her up to the clouds, but offering a second chance at life. Kari Treadway, a family friend of more than 20 years, had volunteered to donate one of her kidneys. As it turned out, the women were a near-perfect match.  

“I just felt this huge sense of relief like, ‘Wow, I’m going to get my life back,’” says Richter, who got the news the day after Christmas. “It was such a precious gift to even dream about receiving, to think that she would do that for me. I was in awe that it was happening.”  

These days, post-surgery, Richter is beginning to feel like her old self. She’s healthy enough to do most of her usual household tasks: walking the dog, preparing meals, even some light housekeeping. 

Her hospital visits, which used to be frequent and include invasive procedures, are down to weekly blood draws to monitor kidney function and medication levels. She hopes to gradually reduce the dosage of her medication, thus lessening the side effects and restoring even more of her life.  

“Kidney transplantation is not a cure,” she notes. “But it’s the closest thing to normal that I could ever hope for.”  

Richter knew something was wrong the previous Christmas, in 2018, when she noticed her urine was unusually dark. The darkness turned out to be blood, and the cause, after a series of tests, turned out to be anti-Glomerular Basement Membrane disease, also known as Goodpasture syndrome.  

Simply put, Richter’s kidneys were becoming less and less effective at removing waste and excess fluid from her body. In a matter of years, the disease would be fatal. 

Richter was hospitalized at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where doctors began life-saving treatments. She was discharged several weeks later, though she was continually monitored by Mayo doctors in La Crosse. 

After a few more months, the team determined she would never regain kidney function. She was put on a waitlist for a donor.  

“It was hard at first, because I’m a pretty healthy person, and I didn’t really feel sick,” she says. “Then I got really sick, which was scary, because I realized this was a serious disease that could cost me my life.”  

There were many hospital visits, many complications and many dark days at home. Through it all, Richter says, she learned to take charge of the things she could control and accept the things she couldn’t. 

Richter found peace in her faith, in the idea that death should be embraced rather than feared.  

“I didn’t want to die,” she explains. “But I accepted that there are worse things in life than dying.”  

All the while, Richter and her family clung to hopes of a transplant. Rather than rely on a four- or five-year wait for a deceased donor, Richter turned to family and friends. 

Her nine brothers and sisters would have been strong candidates — family members are often good matches — except most were too old to donate or had too many underlying health issues.  

One of Richter’s older sisters was a strong match and was prepared to fly in for a final round of tests. Then she received a phone call: Doctors had found an even better candidate.  

“Right after Christmas, Dec. 26, I called Jaralee and told her I had a present for her,” says Treadway, who had met Richter through their husbands in the early 1990s and had remained close with her ever since. Treadway, a 1993 UWL alumna, was also hall director of Laux Hall from 1997 to 2000. 

“Jaralee kept telling me that I could back out at any time, but I wanted to assure her that I wasn’t going to,” Treadway says. “This was something I could do to take away her pain and give her a second chance at life, and I was truly honored and fortunate to be able to do it.”  

Two months later, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the women hugged before being wheeled away to their respective surgeries. They could not have gone better. 

Doctors described Richter’s new kidney as “perfect,” even if Treadway had one small apology. 

“We joke about this all the time, and I always apologize, knowing she has to go to the bathroom a lot because of me,” Treadway says. “I gave her a very active kidney.”  

The pair have spent the past several weeks recovering at home, miles apart but as close as ever.  

Richter says she is pleased with her lab numbers, getting used to her medication and taking added precautions due to her weakened immune system and COVID-19.  

Treadway says she is regaining her strength and is nearly back to full health. 

The transplant didn’t significantly change their relationship. Richter and Treadway were friends before, and they’re friends now.  

But there’s no disputing that the women now share an unbreakable bond. One will always carry a piece of the other, a piece that saved her life.  

“It’s humbling to think I’m walking around with her kidney in my body,” Richter says. “Thinking that she was willing to give up a part of her to make me healthy … it’s made me appreciate living even more.”