Westminster mom donates kidney to 2
The odds seem to have been stacked against 2-year-old Hank Shockney since the day he was born.
Medical experts said the Westminster boy, born with kidney disease, may not survive more than a few days. A prenatal urinary tract obstruction caused a backup of urine from his bladder, which irreparably damaged his kidneys, and he faces a lifetime of medical complications as a result.
But there are many reasons to hope, his parents Jessica and Steve Shockney say.
Hank received a lifesaving kidney transplant earlier this month from his mother, Jessica, 40, and both are well on the road to recovery.
Jessica Shockney said on Aug. 18 that she is sore from the Aug. 4 procedure at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, but recovery has been better than expected for both her and her son.
“I feel, physically, really well,” Jessica Shockney said. “I’m anxiously watching all of his labs hoping that my kidney is doing a good job, and so far it is. I don’t think that’ll ever go away — I’ll always be anxious to be making sure the kidney’s still working.”
With a bit of luck, his parents hope Hank’s new kidney could last for decades.
“This is the light at the end of the tunnel for this whole last two years,” Steve Shockney, 39, said.
It was determined that Jessica Shockney’s kidney would be a good match after numerous examinations to confirm that she was physically capable of being a donor. The transplant had been scheduled for Aug. 22, but Hank suffered a medical emergency during a July 28 operation, making it necessary for the transplant to occur sooner.
“We knew pretty much right from the beginning that [Hank] was going to need a kidney transplant,” Jessica Shockney said. “It’s not a cure for his kidney disease, it’s just a treatment. The best treatment they have is a kidney transplant, and it won’t last him a lifetime, we’ll need multiple transplants in his lifetime.”
The size of a 2-year-old child coupled with risks associated with keeping a child on long-term dialysis makes 2 the target age for a kidney transplant, according to Dr. Bradley Warady, director of Dialysis and Transplantation and Pediatric Nephrology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Warady is also a National Kidney Foundation board member.
A living adult is the ideal candidate to donate a kidney to a child, and the average transplanted kidney from a living donor works for 15 to 20 years, Warady said, although those who are otherwise in good health and who avidly take their medication can extend that time frame by a decade or more.
Jessica Shockney said the family learned of Hank’s medical condition while she was pregnant, and doctors several times recommended terminating the pregnancy.
“It was presented to us as an option,” she said. “My husband and I just never felt like it was our decision to make. We’re Christians and we couldn’t imagine being the ones who make that decision. We never felt like we didn’t have hope, so we continued on. Of course, things were a lot harder than we thought they would ever be.”
Cases like Hank’s are rare and uniquely complex, Warady said, and medical recommendations regarding termination of pregnancy are far from standardized. Hank was also born with underdeveloped lungs, and terminating a pregnancy is usually presented as an option in cases in which a fetus has problems with their kidneys and another organ, Warady added.
“Different experiences, different perspectives and different emotions are all part of this very complex situation that arises,” Warady said, “and I think that’s why there has been a lack of a single, uniform, well-defined approach to these kids.”
Underdeveloped lungs were the first life-threatening hurdle for Hank to overcome and one of many medical complications the child has faced in his two years of life.
“The hardest part was being pregnant and not even knowing if he was going to survive at all,” Jessica Shockney said. “Then once he was born, we weren’t really prepared. We were prepared for him either to survive or not survive, we weren’t prepared for him to spend seven-plus months in the hospital. That was a shock.”
Steve Shockney said his son was baptized while hooked up to an oxygen machine. The Shockneys were asked to come up with a plan detailing what would happen in any scenario of medical uncertainty, which Warady said is standard practice.
“That was kind of their nice way of saying they didn’t think he’s going to make it,” Steve Shockney said.
Jessica Shockney said she never considered giving up on her son.
The Shockneys have three other children ages 13, 10, and 6, all of whom were born healthy. Steve Shockney said Hank’s journey has been a trial for the entire family, but they have been fortunate to have supportive friends and family in the area, including all four of the children’s grandparents.
Jessica Shockney lifts her son Hank, 2, in the air as her husband Steve, and their kids Juliette, 10, Zach, 6, and Violet, 13 look on at Christmas Tree Park in Manchester, Saturday July 15, 2023. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Carroll County Times)
The first several months of Hank’s life, during which he was hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, were particularly challenging for the family. A Baltimore City firefighter, Steve Shockney said he became accustomed to visiting his son after his 24-hour shifts. Jessica Shockney is a stay-at-home mom and was also at Johns Hopkins frequently.
“There wasn’t much getting done at home, basically,” Steve Shockney said. “We were just trying to do laundry, do dishes and get the kids off the school. All of our days were spent with one of us being at the hospital.”
Since then, the family has been able to stay overnight in Baltimore at the Believe in Tomorrow Children’s House, across the street from Johns Hopkins, as Hank received care. The facility provides overnight accommodations, free of charge, to families of children receiving critical care treatment at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
The at-home care Hank Shockney received included a gastronomy tube, central line and dialysis catheter, Jessica Shockney said, which means he was constantly supervised.
“There were three things hanging off his body every day, which all could be life-threatening if he got a hold of them,” Jessica Shockney said.
The parents tried to provide as much normalcy as possible for their other three children, Steve Shockney said, and he often went straight from the hospital to his other kids’ sports games.
After Hank was allowed to receive dialysis from home, Jessica Shockney said his siblings were often recruited to help with tasks like holding their brother while a parent administered a shot.
“It’s kind of weird that this has become normal to them,” Jessica Shockney said.
Hank also has a developmental delay and a low appetite, Jessica Shockney said. The boy vomited every day while on dialysis and has yet to eat solid food by mouth. At one point in time, Hank had to be medically paralyzed for over two months.
“He’s only a 2-year-old, so every day was high stress,” Jessica Shockney said. “But overall, he’s a very happy guy.”
Jessica Shockney said her son suffered no permanent brain damage from his life’s rocky start and is expected to begin school on a normal timeline, even if it means a few years of playing catch-up. Hank currently talks but does not yet walk.
Hank had to take immune system suppressants in preparation for the transplant, and they have permanently weakened his immune system, Steve Shockney said, so he will visit doctors more frequently than an average kid. After being released from the hospital post-surgery, Hank must visit Johns Hopkins three times per week for at least several months.
Despite the circumstances of his birth and medical treatments, Hank has remained positive, and Steve Shockney said Hank’s outgoing, personable nature only deepens as he grows.
“He’s super sociable,” Steve Shockney said. “They always told us — even when he was in the hospital, when he was young — how happy and sociable he was compared to a lot of kids that were institutionalized in the hospital setting. He’s always super outgoing when he feels good, and he’s super happy, super smiley.”
The family has documented Hank’s journey through his first two years of life on social media, at facebook.com/ourherohank.