The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Adjunct David Sten’s selfless act was a positive experience for him and a life-changing event for the recipient.

Says Sten: “I am so thankful that things worked out well for Leo, and that the new kidney made such a dramatic difference for him.”

The Libertarian Party has traditionally been an outlier in national politics, struggling to score significant victories at the polls. In 2016, however, the party was responsible — at least indirectly — for one winner: Leo Dymowski, of Dundalk, Md.

A long-time Libertarian, the 60-year-old employee of the Maryland Parole Commission had run for Congress and state attorney general in past elections. But last year, overriding any political ambitions he may have entertained was a much more serious concern: he needed a kidney transplant. Desperately.

Dymowski was born with only one semi-functional kidney, and by March of 2016 it was operating at just 9 percent efficiency. If he failed to get a new organ, he faced a lifetime of dialysis — three days a week, eight hours a day hooked up to a machine that would cleanse his body of impurities that a normally functioning kidney would eliminate.

He had already exhausted the most obvious potential donors — immediate family and close friends. They either didn’t have a matching blood type or weren’t healthy enough to qualify as donors. Failure to find a match is not unusual. According to the National Kidney Foundation’s annual figures, more than 100,000 people need transplants, and fewer than 17,000 receive them. A more sobering statistic from the NKF: every day, 13 people die waiting for a kidney.

So Dymowski was preparing for the challenge of dialysis. He had already undergone surgery to create a fistula, or vascular access, on his arm, to receive the catheter that would transport toxins, waste and extra fluids from his body.

Feature Talk: David & Leo

David and Leo talk about their feature article in the Spring 2017 edition of the WilmU Magazine

On March 16, his situation was described on the Maryland Libertarian Party’s blog. David Sten, an adjunct faculty member in Wilmington University’s College of Technology, read the blog. Sten, a resident of North East, Md., had served as chairman of the state party for a couple of years and he knew Dymowski, although they weren’t close friends.

The blog noted that a donor with type A or O blood was needed. The 46-year-old Sten is type A. He went to bed, giving serious thought to donating one of his kidneys to Dymowski.

He already knew a bit about kidney transplants, thanks to Dr. James Wilson, the University’s vice president for Academic Affairs. Sten and Wilson had ridden together during the 2015 Bike to the Bay, an annual two-day bike ride through lower Delaware that raises funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

During the ride, Sten learned that Wilson was a kidney transplant recipient, and he peppered Wilson with questions about the operation.

“Dr. Wilson made the procedure a lot less scary,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for him, I would’ve never considered the operation.”

“What a wonderful surprise to learn about David’s gift,” says Wilson. “It brought tears to my eyes. I had to think for a moment in order to recall this conversation which speaks to the potential power of the numerous, somewhat random conversations we have throughout life’s journey.  David’s altruistic gift will live on for many years and make a difference not only in Leo’s life, but in the life of his entire family. Who knows how David’s and Leo’s story may inspire many others in the future.”The morning after reading the blog, and after discussing his decision with his wife, Renee, Sten called Dymowski’s wife, got the phone number of the hospital, and arranged to start blood tests. Over the next few months, in preparation for the operation, he underwent multiple tests and examinations and shed 20 pounds from his 6-foot frame, going from 195 to 175.

On Aug. 4, donor and recipient were wheeled into an operating room at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, and the transplant procedure began.

“They went in through my navel using a microscopic instrument and removed my left kidney,” Sten says. “It was a lot bigger than they anticipated. The doctor said it was like wrestling with a bear to get it out.”

The surgical team then spent three hours trimming excess fat from the organ. “I had lost weight on the outside, but I guess I was fat on the inside,” Sten says.

“Afterward, I’m not going to lie, I had some pain, but they had me up and taking a few steps that first day. I only took pain medication that day.”

Leo Dymowski and David Sten are friends for life.

Dymowski, meanwhile, was sedated for 24 hours while the surgical team completed the transplant. “When he woke up, the kidney was functioning,” says Sten, “and he said he woke up refreshed.”

Donor and recipient were able to walk to each other’s rooms a day after the operation, which was on Thursday morning. On Saturday, Sten went home.

As for Dymowski, who turned 60 while he was in the hospital, the transplanted organ gave him a new lease on life. Before the operation, he says, “I would come home from work and lie down. Right after the operation, it felt as if I was juiced up, like going from zero to 60. I felt powerful.”

He says the pain was minimal. “Dental surgery was 10 times worse, and I never did take the pain meds they gave me.”

In fact, he felt well enough to run for circuit court judge in Baltimore County last fall, and Sten helped him in what proved to be an unsuccessful campaign.

Dymowski says he was “blown away” when Sten called his wife and offered to donate a kidney. “Then Dave had to go through months of preparation, and take a lot of time off work.”

Not surprisingly, the two couples have become closer. Dymowski and his wife, Jan, visit the Stens once a month or so, go to church with them, and then to dinner. The Stens’ church supported them throughout the preparation and the actual operation. “There were many people praying for our situation as we waited on the many different tests and their results,” says Sten. “Knowing that so many people were concerned and pulling for us made the process easier.”

During the first week after the operation Sten was tired and took several naps every day.  “After two weeks that side effect improved and I was able to stay active throughout the day,” he says.

An IT project leader at Herr Foods in Nottingham, Pa., Sten says his employer was generous in allowing him time off to undergo tests and to recover from the operation. He returned to work four weeks after the surgery, but wasn’t allowed to pick up anything weighing more than 10 pounds for six weeks after that. Some doctors advise donors to avoid contact sports, but, generally speaking, they can pursue a normal level of activity after surgery.

Sten’s level of activity is anything but normal. Aside from his work with the Libertarian Party, he enjoys the outdoors and astronomy and is a dedicated biker, in addition to being the father of two daughters, ages 20 and 13.

Oh, and he’s working on his fourth graduate degree from Wilmington University. That’s right: his fourth.

Sten earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Delaware in 1994, and a few years later, he went to work at Herr’s in the IT department.

Career and family (and the Libertarian Party) kept him busy for a few years, but he had always harbored a desire to further his education, and in 2007 he decided to scratch that educational itch.

After doing some research, Sten chose WilmU. “It was nearby, it offered face-to-face classes that fit my schedule, and it was [economically] reasonable,” he says, “with no out-of-state penalty for tuition.”

He enrolled in the fall of 2007 and received his Master’s in Internet and Web Design two years later.

Apparently bitten with the higher education bug, he became a serial earner of master’s degrees, all from WilmU. He got a Master’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Management Information Systems in 2011. Then came a Master’s in Management and Management Information Systems in 2015. Currently, he’s working on advanced degree No. 4, a Master’s in Business Administration with a concentration in Organizational Leadership.

He became an adjunct in 2012, teaching graduate level courses in the College of Technology.

“I’m absolutely blown away by some of my students in terms of their résumés and their experiences,” he says. “Most of them are international, from India, Africa, China.”

He says he has had no problems living with one kidney. “I have very few restrictions. I can’t take Advil and I can’t go on the Adkins Diet [because excess protein can put stress on the kidneys], but that’s not going to keep me from having a steak or a burger now and then.” He says a donor’s kidney will increase in size to compensate for the loss of the donated kidney.

Most of all, though, he’s happy for Dymowski. “I was so thankful that things worked out well for Leo, and that the new kidney made such a dramatic difference for him.”

Sten says he’s willing to talk to anyone who is thinking about becoming a donor. His advice: “Go for it. It’s a very positive experience.” WU


– Bob Yearick

Photos and Video by Paul Patton